It is fairly safe to say that the current incarnation of Fairport Convention is no longer breaking ground in the genre the band helped create in the late 1960s. Richard Thompson took his influential guitar wizardry elsewhere three decades ago; singer Sandy Denny left around the same time. The remaining members have dealt with the departures by reveling in their past folk-rock greatness, without recapturing much of what made their legacy so great in the first place.
When the band (with Thompson and Denny in tow) was recasting British folk rock in the '60s, there was an edge to the music that placed it in a logical progression from Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and the Byrds. The songs that comprised the band's classic early albums were unmistakably British in character, but contained a distinct North American influence and a rocking quality that set the band apart from the acoustic-strumming pack it was leading. This is what made early Fairport Convention so influential: a fusing of traditional British folk with an electrified American twang and swagger, highlighted by Denny's haunting voice and Thompson's fractured guitar work.
After Thompson left in the early '70s, Fairport found success crafting songs that fit well into the genre in which the band was already comfortably situated. However, from the late '70s onward, Fairport continued to fragment and re-form, replacing original members with stand-ins, touring constantly, and recording with only modest success. Today, only Simon Nicol and Dave Pegg remain from the band's earliest days, and the Fairport Convention they now head is almost entirely dedicated to straightforward pop-folk. This is unfortunate, but hardly surprising for a band -- brand? -- approaching its fortieth year. What we are left with, as exemplified on Over the Next Hill, is a group specializing in traditional ballads and pleasant, masterfully-played, but ultimately forgettable folk tunes.
Several of these songs, such as the overwrought "I'm Already There" and "Over the Falls", display the kind of aging folkie self-caricature that was lampooned so successfully in A Mighty Wind. They are maudlin, too tame, and they inch closer to '70s America/Kenny Loggins/Seals & Croft diet-folk than any self-respecting rock band should allow. Similarly, the story of Mary Anning, who supported her family in the 1800s by selling fossils, may be interesting -- but does it really merit such a sentimental telling in "The Fossil Hunter"?
Despite the obvious flaws, there are some songs here that shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. "Wait for the Tide to Come In" has a warm Bruce Hornsby feel to it, and is probably the most successful of all the pop ventures on the album. Ric Sanders's instrumental "Canny Capers" is a fine example of the band's brilliant musicianship, and even borrows a chord sequence from Chick Corea.
The highlight of Over the Next Hill, however, is the reworking of "Si Tu Dois Partir" from Fairport's 1969 masterwork Unhalfbricking. The song, a translation of Dylan's "If You Gotta Go, Go Now", is rendered here as a full-on drinking romp, and surely captures the band at its best.
Over the Next Hill, in its finer moments, is the sound of a pub band playing pub music, all of which is made far less enjoyable by the absence of the actual pub. It is clear that the band members are adept musicians, and that if you were to stumble upon them fiddling around in a fire-lit tavern somewhere on a cold English night, they would no doubt be the greatest bar band you had ever heard. Whether they come off as exciting on record is another story, but I guess you can't really blame a band for your own internal lack of a pint or two.