PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Sandy Denny: No More Sad Refrains: The Anthology

Fred Kovey

Sandy Denny

No More Sad Refrains: the Anthology

Label: A&M
US Release Date: 2000-08-01
UK Release Date: 2000-08-14

On last night's episode of Young Americans on the WB, two blonde young people discussed their troubled relationship. One of them was under a truck doing some unspecified repairs with a large wrench at the time -- the girl, I think. When she came up from under her vintage Ford pick-up, tastefully grease-smudged, the two of them went off hand in hand, having repaired their love at the very same moment as their truck. I didn't notice what they said -- I was making a sandwich -- but I did notice the soundtrack: "Pink Moon" by Nick Drake. The song is so pretty I actually found those two out-of context minutes from a teen drama I'd never seen before kind of touching. "Pink Moon" has that kind of power.

So Nick Drake is great and he's everywhere. What about the other seminal figures from the late sixties/early seventies British Folk movement? Richard Thompson, for one, has always maintained a substantial cult following. His rough-hewn vocals and virtuoso guitar playing make him more of a rock and roller and thus more accessible than his peers. Nowadays he does tours like the ones Lou Reed does: the two of them (never together, as far as I know) lumbering the country, playing posh theaters with high-ticket prices, releasing albums that sell to the same people over and over again.

Which leaves Sandy Denny -- the third great artist from the British Folk movement and still the most under-appreciated. Like Nick Drake she died young and in her prime. There are no tours or new albums to remind us of her achievements.

Nick Drake to the rescue.

Drake mania has revived interest in the British Folk scene in general and Sandy Denny in particular. Unfortunately, unlike the solitary Drake, Denny was a sociable creature whose singing and songwriting are spread over too many records for anyone but a serious fan to get a handle on. She has been anthologized in single CD greatest hits packages before, but the too-short and thin-sounding discs didn't do justice to her long and varied career or her beautiful singing voice. The new two-CD anthology, No More Sad Refrains, from A&M is more like it. This is the kind of attention to back catalog that record companies owe their customers but often fail to provide. Everything has been carefully re-mastered to sound good on compact disc and the expanded storage capability of the medium has been put to good effect. Both of the CDs are over 70 minutes long and an informative booklet with an essay by Denny biographer Clinton Heylin is included. Lyric sheets would have been nice, but why quibble?

With all my Nick Drake talk, it's only fair to point out to people who haven't heard Sandy Denny that she doesn't sound much like Nick Drake. She's wistful, too; and her songs are superficially similar to Drake's. But while Nick Drake is an introspective and almost unbearably intimate performer, Denny is every bit an entertainer. Like Joni Mitchell, Sandy Denny throws her words out to the crowd. Even over drum fills and guitar solos, her voice is always the focus, as much as if she was busking with a guitar on a street corner.

It's not hard to see why. Throughout her career Denny's extraordinary control and style as a singer won her entry into bands of her choosing. Her most famous work was with the band that defined the British Folk sound, Fairport Convention. Denny sang with them on three records, left to form Fotheringay with her then-boyfriend, Trevor Lucas, and joined Fairport again. Her songwriting was respectable but it was her singing voice that made her special. She could sing with or without vibrato, softly or with operatic power. Covers of the Everly Brothers ("When Will I Be Loved") and Buddy Holly ("Learning the Game") suggest that she could have been a great country singer, as well. Her unadorned, pure tone calls to mind Emmylou Harris as well as Joni Mitchell. You may have heard her before without even knowing it. That's Sandy Denny singing with Robert Plant on "Battle of Evermore."

No More Sad Refrains is a necessarily limited sample of Denny's career. Because it focuses on Denny's songwriting as much as her singing, it is skewed to her solo work where she had more freedom to do her own material. This approach sacrifices variety in favor of capturing Denny as an artist more completely. It's a trade-off, but not an unwise one. Her time with Fairport Convention is well represented and, as is appropriate, Richard Thompson is the second most prevalent songwriter on No More Sad Refrains, after Denny herself.

Being a Nick Drake and/or Richard Thompson fan does not mean you'll enjoy Sandy Denny -- though you probably will. But listening to Sandy Denny will certainly deepen your enjoyment of Nick Drake or Richard Thompson. More so then any other artist, Sandy Denny embodied the entirety of the British Folk movement and all its influences, from Celtic and American Folk to Hippy Rock. She was an oversized presence in a narrow genre. Whether or not she would have gone on to bigger things is a question that won't be answered. She died on April 17, 1978 after falling down a flight of stairs and slipping into a coma from which she would never wake up. At least finally her memory is growing to match her legacy.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.