Tuesday, July 1, 2008

My Folk-Rock Shortlist

Fifth and for now the final installment of my recommendations, but with more concision, I (vainly) promise. I lack the wallet big enough to reward my curiosity. I'd place Fairport Convention first, since they grafted the British branch, much as The Byrds had the American varietal a few years before. I prefer Fairport and their own offshoot, Steeleye Span, to the Yankee sounds, since I gravitate to traditional Irish and English music rather than country, western, or bluegrass. So, this will be a perspective skewed across the Atlantic.

Fairport's June '68 début, more in line with Jefferson Airplane or even the Mamas & the Papas to some critics' ears, lacks what I sense as the flimsy, ditzy inattention of those West Coast lightweights. Judy Dyble, their first singer (later briefly with Trader Horne), provides a more understated, less dramatic voice than Sandy Denny would. However, this does not undermine the well-arranged softer tracks and it enhances the more serpentine, instrumentally complex tunes that hint at what Richard Thompson and his mates, barely out of their teens, improved upon with January 1969's "What We Did On Our Holidays," my favorite LP of this genre.

It's not quite folk-rock in the sense that July's "Unhalfbricking" and notably December's "Liege & Lief" would be, not as immersed into the Child ballads and longer epics that the band began to create, re-work, and energize. Imagine: one year, three LPs, a trajectory in a year and a half under producer Joe Boyd and engineer John Wood that astonishes me by its speed and flair, by kids probably averaging twenty years in age. As punk would do a half-dozen years later by other fresh-faced, if shorter-haired youths, so folk-rock sprouted like a flourescent weed through the greyness of what passed for the counterculture's commercialization into clunky satire, simpering singalongs, and pompous sentiment.

In contrast, "Holidays" possesses a wistful ambiance that lets you imagine how a batch of Muswell Hill (hello Kinks!) flatmates shared their youthful vision of an English indigenous music, amplified (see the chalk cover drawing), buzzing with intelligence, fun, and invention. It's a diverse assortment of tracks, yet, unlike many of the psychedelic LPs that I reviewed two days ago on that shortlist here, "Holidays" keeps a flow from initial songs ("Mr. Lacey" I tend to skip as too lightweight, but any song with a vacuum cleaner solo is worth hearing once) that address the cheekiness of their generation into deeper wanderings along shadier paths into melancholy-- where Denny, Thompson, and friends-- and the band, named after their house, generates their camaraderie into these warm grooves-- would collectively make in a couple of years three amazingly confident, yet somehow winningly casual, albums of folkish charm, traditionally infused structures, and rock enthusiasm. Like the Byrds, they cover Dylan well, and I prefer hearing these two groups interpret His Bobness to the master gnomic vatic oracle himself (same with Leonard Cohen covers, or the college rockers who take the Velvets and run with 'em endlessly in search of the perfect sound forever repeating its riffs.)

By "Unhalfbricking," you can see where the band's going. This album, usually ranked a notch above "Holidays," grabs me less tightly, but it's a better choice for beginners: more of Denny's full-on emotion, more of Simon Nicol and Richard Thompson's interwoven gnarled riffs. With "Liege," issued after tragedy struck and original drummer Martin Lamble's death, his replacement Dave Mattacks provided Ashley Hutchings' bass with a rhythm section to me rivalling Sly & Robbie for reggae fans, of which I am not, but I give credit where it's due for a tight pair able to play off endlessly what to the uninformed sounds like a rigid, formulaic, or repetitive song tradition. To me, that's the signature of musical genius, and for folk-rock, this band stumbled upon the key that unlocked the door to the treasures of the archives.

That fourth LP's lionized for its monolithic position. Not having the "Liege & Leif" remaster, perhaps it sounds to me still rather tentative in parts. But, "Matty Groves" finally shows the epic quality at its best, bettering for me "Genesis Hall" and "A Sailor's Life" on the previous LP as the folkier foundation gave way to a earthier British sensibility that electrifies this traditional tale. The "Medley" arranged by skilled fiddler Dave Swarbrick jolts you with its attack, and this remains for me the band's finest instrumental. Denny's voice grates and chafes rather than soothes when she takes command, and I find it intriguing that this would be her last record with the band.

At least until another one later in the '70s; the band suffered always from instability and sudden departures-- yet "Full House" with Thompson having to take on vocals, and the live "House Full" both hold up admirably-- and soon only one, and then none of the founders would remain in what became an institution, yet like old blues or jazz line-ups more of a way of making music than a stable of stalwarts. They still meet and re-unite annually at Cropredy, which emphasizes the fluidity and fellowship at the core, paradoxically, of this fluctuating array of the leaders of British electric folk. This term, used by Britta Sweers in her recent, Oxford U.P. study of the tradition, is one I prefer to folk-rock, which for me keeps the music too connected to the likes of Donovan, Dylan, or Loggins & Messina for that matter. Plugging in, as the cover of "Holidays" depicts, keeps this genre alive in ways that acoustic modes cannot sustain. It ramps up the sex, the bluster, the joy, and the rage of the lyrics, the long centuries of hatreds and exiles and defeats and embraces of the ballad tradition, and the communal release of such emotion felt in village pubs and on green commons thousands of times each season and feastday and market in Britain for so many years.

Steeleye Span broke off of Fairport. Denny left for a solo career-- her album as a sort-of leader of Fotheringay is worthwhile, although the title track for me is best heard as the poignant, forceful opening of "Holidays." Hutchings also departed, for a purer muse. His bandmates typically sent him up for this, as he was supposedly the most rock-n-roll of the line-up, although soon he scoured the Cecil Sharp Archives in search of traditional tunes to arrange. Before he too left the band he would found, Steeleye, he showed what those committed to a less pop-oriented, more electric-folk direction would leave behind as what for me represent the pinnacle of a less-heralded but more rewarding sight: what clever, restless rockers could do when left totally free to re-imagine how to arrange and expand traditional melodies.

Hutchings knew whom to recruit. Terry Woods, future Pogue, back in 1970 ex-Sweeney's Men, a short-lived supergroup of future members of Planxty and the then-birthing revival of the Irish trad scene, was more steeped in Appalachian and bluegrass styles. He and his then-wife, Gay, entered the line-up along with, or what turned out to be opposite, another prominent couple, the vocal duo of Maddy Prior and Tim Hart, who had already years of experience in the English folk clubs. Their rural stint while recording "Hark! The Village Wait" apparently led to those familiar tensions, but the less mellifluous, more raspy vocals of Terry make appealing contrasts with the smoother deliveries of the other three singers. The electronic mode of delivery somehow exaggerates the backwoods, half-hewn quality of the fiddles, drums (played by the then-current Mattacks and Fairport & Pentangle, Jethro Tull & Denny, Fotheringay's & ugh Cat Stevens' future percussionist Gerry Conway-- one example of the tightly-knit if often feuding, then reuniting clan of British folk-rockers-- guitars, and bass well.

With its title from the Wren Boys' St Stephen's Day tradition, itself a faint echo of paganism enduring into the island's Christianized era through our own secularizing centuries, "Please to See the King" lacks the drums but, with Hart & Prior's practiced pairing now enhanced by Peter Knight's fiddle and leading folk guitarist Martin Carthy's prowess with playing and singing, this album betters its predecessor. Partially due to this 1971 line-up, partially due to the experience perhaps in getting over the anxieties of the début, but Hutchings and his partners shine. This shows, as he intended, what a band like Fairport might have matured into if they had gone all-trad with their sources, and dropped Dylan, Joni, or the Byrds, for example, in pursuit of a more venerable muse, one step closer to the mother lode for any 60s folkie anyway.

The music also gains a purity for its separation, as has been commented perhaps not entirely accurately in Thompson's own guitar craft, from American blues. Hutchings reportedly found himself amused when his folkier (of course) bandmates recorded (you can find it on the remaster) Buddy Holly's "Rave On" a capella to needle their former rocker's earnest conversion to folk. "Tyger" Hutchings' determination, seen in his own countenance when you compare his photos on Steeleye albums to the earlier ones from Fairport, also illustrates his fashion sense, as this Londoner begins to dress as if he stepped out of Hardy's Wessex. A place too where the real, fading English ruralism could be returned to and enjoyed, even if hard to find on a real map of the realm's Southwest. This-- as with the back-to-nature movement increasing by 1969 among disillusioned or illusioned idealistic hippies and intellectuals-- highlights Steeleye's plan, to return to its own island's wellsprings to draw up new sparkling quaffs of danceable, rousing, and haunting reminders for toasts and hail-fellow-well mets. Longhairs need not turn away from the past when it came to celebrations or commemorations of lust, betrayal, protest, lore-- or inebriation.

Lots of albums followed for both Fairport and Steeleye. The former band never regained its peak, but coasts along respectably now into its fourth decade as a looser gathering of like-minded enthusiasts, a good position that joins fans with members, spinning off side projects and giving electric folkies a chance to split off and coalesce and regroup accordingly. Steeleye, on the other hand, lasted with the "Please" line-up only for the next year's "Ten Man Mop." The first three albums with a bonus track, all cleaned up impressively, can be procured nowadays as "The Lark in the Morning."

Individual songs on these albums, for me, blur together more. Instrumental medleys mingling with covers of original tunes at this stage, but they captivate you by the considerable power of Prior's range of characters in her articulation and coloration, sharpened by Hart and Carthy's own years of living lives as if lovers, truants, criminals, and wooers. The singers draw you in to witness the dramatic scenes that many of these traditional songs express, the soap operas and reality TV of their day, scripted as vividly three hundred years ago, off broadsheets declaimed by wandering buskers or hawked in lurid chapbooks peddled at the town(e) fair(e).

Compilations and live discs for Fairport and Steeleye threaten to outnumber studio releases, attesting to the faithful followers of both; Steeleye's mid-70s breakthrough onto the charts gave them a harder-rocking, more traditionally-inspired than inspired traditional set of tunes. Many of the albums during their hitmaking, such as it was, period stay listenable today, and particular selections can dazzle. Yet, they tended to veer too far, pushed by Bob Johnson's amps into posing as arena-rockers in a catch-up to Tull, or dangerous forays into cuteness such as Peter Sellers' guest turn on ukelele or overly-slick couplings of jinglesque knob-twiddling with fiddle-guitar assaults that threatened to weary rather than warm.

But they managed, despite marked excess in the steroid-pumped guitar by then in a line-up long absent of Carthy (who idiosyncratically returned at the end of the mid-70s track record of successes with accordionist John Kirkpatrick for the patchier "Storm Force Ten"), to maintain what I would argue an impressive, commercialized consistency until punk's media blitz did them in. Unfairly, but the band needed a break, it seemed, from touring. Therefore, by the end of the '70s, they faded themselves back to fewer gigs, and Fairport levels of post-Liege steadiness farther away from the arenas, which probably turned out for the better.

This brings me to Horslips, who began their career opening for Steeleye and closed their own 1970s career matching them with their own capitulation under the pressure of New Wave. Turn to Lee Templeton's Come Back Horslips for all you'd ever want to know. Or my own article if you want a more academic-meets-literary overview that incorporates many of the insights from CBH and related media links: Horslips in Irish Musical & Literary Culture. I've expounded in my Amazon US reviews, blog entries here, and on CBH about this group's records and their impact.

Suffice to say that this often-praised, often-flamboyant (and the band always winked its ten eyes at its own five-part blarney) band created for me some of the catchiest lyrical and musical moments of my young adulthood, when I finally heard the swirling music I'd only read about as it swept the charts over there, a bold concatenation of psychedelic hard rock, progressive folk, and traditional motifs. My three recommendations: 1972's début "Happy To Meet, Sorry To Part" starts it all, but it's more experimental and perhaps a bit hesitant compared to '73's ballsy follow-up, "The Táin". The concept album may be a dreaded identifier, but the unity of narrative and ideas on "The Book of Invasions: A Celtic Symphony" in 1976 speaks eloquently for a native Irish rock tradition akin to what Hutchings created for another island nearby.

What about other Irish groups worthy of the name, pre-Pogues and their London punk blend with the other island's legacies? There aren't any equals, far as I can tell. Pentangle, whose "Basket of Light" I've always trumpeted, is sometimes as close to acoustic jazz (and believe me, that noun's one I avoid about as often as "algebra" in my daily life) as it is to any rock methodology. This album can be moody, brooding, and insistent, yet it sounds distant from even Fairport, as if hermetically irrigated by its pre-Dylan, hushed 1962 coffeehouse milieu. The album unfolds removed from the moratoriums, the drug raids, the posturing of the Stones, the regrouping of the Beatles, and the passing freak shows on the streets of the capital. Like Denny and Thompson-- and with bassist Danny Thompson no less, Pentangle does not fit neatly into an electric folk tradition, being more loyal-- and this is not a negative judgment-- to its already matured singer-songwriters' own dignity and its session-man vibes. It fits cozy confines of a more conservatively carpentered niche within popular music.

Diving back into hazy English streets, the tribal ravings of early 70s Comus remain unheard by me; I do not know much about Lindisfarne, compared to the CBHers even. Welsh eclectics Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, with "The Blue Trees" and "Sleep/ Holiday" in their post-acid phase, typify what happened as bedroom-studio punks and smart misfits learned how to turn down the guitar and turn up the fiddle, to tuneful results, but I am not sure that this any more than what I admit's often an assured and nimble response to 1977 as "Songs From the Wood" from supposed dinosaurs Jethro Tull, can be reliably classified as electric-folk.

I'd add on a quick tangent: the intermittently (I'm a harsh critic) stunning "Stand Up" by an earlier, stalwart, and gifted line-up before Ian Anderson's ego ballooned so large-- you still have a band on the cover, for instance. Praised in the Irish collection of memoirs "My Generation" by Barry Devlin, bassist of Horslips, and seconded by me, this wanders still into the jazzier nature of their début, but it shows perhaps unwittingly how Martin Barre's searing guitar, Glenn Cornick's bass and Barriemore Barlow's drums locked into interweaving chords and knotted progressions that make prog-rock, when as concise and memorable as this, not only bearable but desirable. Delightful bits of hummable happiness lurk; far less bombast than what "Aqualung" engendered. There's also that innocence from 1969 that they share with Fairport: the discovery of wonder in song.

Later, Dave Pegg of post-Sandy Fairport would join Tull. It took nearly a decade after Tull's triumph for recorded proof that the younger crowd could match the stadium prog-folk-rockers when it came to Marshalls turned to eleven in the service of rebellion. Veteran punks in the Pogues decided to bridge this supposed gap between Rotten and Child, Captain O'Neill's collection of Irish song and whoever could not stand a system where popular entertainment meant turning on the radio to endure The Captain & Tennille. Shane MacGowan and his eager London-Irish pals were joined by veteran folkie Terry Woods. For me, album number two became their best moment. It's not for nothing that the "If I Should Fall From Grace With God" cover made room for James Joyce as the eighth member of the band.

While these hybrids earn their merit, their CDs may rest wobbily on any shelf bookended by long rows of Fairport and Steeleye. These two bands remain, far more centrally than in other styles of music I've been pontificating upon the last three days, central to their own genre. Lee Templeton of Come Back Horslips renown emphasized in conversation with me the other day that unlike punk and psych, folk falls back upon the repertoire, and as many fans keep the music faithful to its origins as those who wish to plug in electric bouzoukis. (I saw this Greek import to Celtic folk, thanks to Johnny Moynihan and then Andy Irvine, both once in Planxty and Sweeney's Men back in the mid-60s, credited the other day in a footnote as an "Irish" instrument. So have the accordion, guitar, fiddle in their own stead become hibernized.) Yet many audiences liberated by punk or psych to tear down convention cannot find as easy a break within a genre that finds nourishment from a return to and a renewal of its past centuries of lore whether memorialized in a local place name or a lurid tale.

The centrifugal pull of the archives lured Ashley Hutchings away from being taken by the sounds of Haight-Ashbury and the Sunset Strip into the Cecil Sharp manuscripts and Child ballads. As with the late 60s, so now. Folk-rock appears to keep the British branch of the genre gravitating back to their venerable and prolific and often nearly forgotten by now founders. Bands pursue this electric muse on a smaller scale, at festivals and in bars, but perhaps it inherits the folk scene's own intimacy. Audiences respond to this music in a more organic, less glitzy setting, after all. It's the place from where it emerges: geared more to pub than palace.

Folk-rock with a few exceptions sticks to the county fair, Renaissance Fair(e)TM, country festival, city basement itinerary. Certainly a humbler routine than the garish psychedelic or gobbing (post)punk and their respective sold-out international tours by heirs like Pink Floyd or The Cure. By its own modesty and small-scale pleasures, electric folk satisfies an audience happier-- as I am I realize typing this on a much-awaited vacation in a recliner in a cabin under the redwoods-- with what Fairport sang about, in a Richard Farina cover, as "The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood." And, notwithstanding the frequent causes for misogyny that permeate the repertoire of folkies, my fetching sisters.

Turning back to cities where folkies tend to sulk, the rowdier punks crowd the clubs and enter the studios. This can be heard within the protests of Oysterband, who began in the 1970s as far more purist in the Hutchings camp. Then, they abandoned dance tunes for a snappy political delivery of spirited folk-rock in an aggressive, literate style, show them perhaps closer to a less C&W, more pub-meets-soapbox shouting Mekons. The Mekons, throughout their endless career of thirty years, had early on, around 1980, tried out fiddles to good effect, and while they get too Americana-rootsy for me often mid-80s, they know how to leaven the hoedowns with the reels. Their most recent album to date, "Natural," displays them nosing about truffles more acoustic, chthonic (spell-check alert, but this derives from the fine Greek word favored I bet in crosswords, y'know). Doggedly anti-Establishment, socialist Morris meets Morris dance, they declaim raggedly alternative leftist utopian longings.

The whole punk-folk axis stretched this alteration of electric folk further, and by the early 80s, Boiled in Lead and Levellers (both of whom sort of bored me) for my postpunk generation (and today Dropkick Murphies and Flogging Molly) lead the way for a genre that I never have quite embraced. I like loud music, and I like folk music. But, when you stir them up, it's hard to "adjust for taste" this recipe.

It's similar to when, even as a rock-geek kid, I did not like the guitar Mass. Turn up the volume or hasten the choruses outside of the ceremony, I thought, and don't mix the worldly pleasures so indelibly into the sacred detachment. But, I was in the minority, alongside my mom who in 1970 wept when the parish was remodeled as a more "open" sanctuary devoid of statues and candles and when "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" replaced "Faith of our Fathers" as Sunday hymns.

Photo: Cover of "Unhalfbricking" featuring Neil & Edna, Sandy's parents. The band's neatly and suggestively framed at left in their Wimbledon garden. Great symbolism here that works on a variety of levels. See comments at Sour Duck

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A wonderful review of the music that got me through the Seventies and helped my imagination grasp the ancient roots of the Appalachian people. Glad, by the way, to see someone else who prefers What We Did on Our Holidays to Unhalfbricking. "Tale in Hard Time" is still a holy anthem to me. Rodger Cunningham