Shirley Collins’ magnificent Lodestar show at the Barbican last Saturday has put me on a bit of a British folk tip again. In the past, guided by Rob Young’s definitive study of England’s old weird music, Electric Eden, I’ve done a certain amount of digging around among the bushes and briars of 1970s folk-rock. But, while I’ve found many treasures to take to my heart (bands like Comus and Trees), there are other branches that I’ve yet to fully explore. As fascinated as I am, there can be a musty preciousness that puts my brakes on.
I’ve long loved Fairport Convention’s two 1969 albums Unhalfbricking and Liege & Leaf (though these too took a certain amount of adjusting) but never investigated the Sandy Denny solo material that followed – nor had I really taken in the sad circumstances of her later life and her tragic death at 31. But this second solo LP, from 1972, has really caught my ear in the past few days. It’s a smooth but seductively melancholy product of the brown British 70s, with 12 songs that seem to almost glow out of the speakers.
This effect comes partly from the honeyed production by Denny’s former bandmate and future husband Trevor Lucas, and the backing strings arranged by Harry Robinson. Gone is the rollicking, ramshackle sound of the Fairport records. Yet, while there’s a radio-ready polish here that I might have normally found too cheesy to touch, songs such as opener ‘It’ll Take a Long Time’, Dylan cover ‘Tomorrow Is a Long Time’ and, catchiest of all, the poppy earworm ‘Listen, Listen’ have proven all but irresistible.
Released as a single, that last song features a tremulous mandolin part played by Fairport guitarist Richard Thompson, who also plays electric or acoustic guitar on most of the album. He’s part of a rogue’s gallery of British folk musicians playing on the record, which includes vocals from Linda Thompson, fiddle from Dave Swarbrick and – on ‘It Suits Me Well’ – concertina from John Kirkpatrick (who, with his forceful voice and squeezebox mastery, made a huge impression on me supporting Shirley on stage last weekend).
Sandy came out in September 1972 and, with its iconic cover portrait of the auburn-haired singer by David Bailey, it really feels like an autumn record: full of regret but radiating warmth and feeling.