[27 June 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
When it comes to burning out or fading away, England’s Fairport Convention chose the road less traveled by. They stuck it out for the long haul, still selling out venues and recording proper studio albums to this day. And yet, with the exception of a period in the late ‘80s, their line-up has always been in a state of flux, especially so in the early years. 1969’s Unhalfbricking, their third release, is the lone work from one of the most popular incarnations of the Convention.
Singer-songwriter Ian Matthews had walked away shortly after recording for the album began, so the vocal duties mostly fell to the forever-beautiful Sandy Denny. Her tremendously expressive voice anchors the stellar guitar work of Richard Thompson (at the time, fast becoming a force in his own right). The passionate drumming of young Martin Lamble and the guest fiddle of Birmingham notable Dave Swarbrick, who would go on to take an active role in the collective until 1984, also stood at the forefront of the work. Furthermore to the departure of Matthews came a shift from American folk-rock to traditional British folk.
The most powerful song and centerpiece of Unhalfbricking is an 11-minute adaptation of “A Sailor’s Life”, a tune recovered from the turn of the 20th century and reworked thoroughly. Beginning with Denny’s forceful reading and twittering, teasing instrumentation, the track develops into a soloing, epic raga on the scale of The Doors’ “The End” with Thompson’s righteous guitar vigorously trading virtuosity with Swarbrick’s fiddle over a tight rhythm section dirge and less oedipal weight. In due order, this timeless aimed aesthetic would not take full effect until the following album, Leif And Liege, which is widely regarded by critics and fans as their seminal work. As such, three whole Bob Dylan covers fill out the Unhalfbricking tracklisting. A jaunty Cajun French rendition of “If You Gotta Go” ranks as their only hit single, out of all that history. Though the cut barely missed the UK top 20, it got them on the legacy Tops Of The Pops TV show anyway. Their version of “Percy’s Song” hits the appropriate stride as well, but the closing “Million Dollar Bash” ramshackle sing-along seems a little tacky and amateurish. Perhaps three Dylan covers was a bit much for one album.
Even so, the groundwork for immortality had been laid. Denny’s legend was born and Thompson’s was on the rise. However, drummer Martin Lamble died in a tour bus accident along with Thompson’s girlfriend while touring in support of this album, so things would never be the same again. That leaves Unhalfbricking as a time capsule of fun and discovery that cannot be repeated. It’s a moment of fleeting brilliance frozen in time, and a bargain at almost any price.