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We all have our reservations about 'introduction' or 'best of' compilations of our favourite artists partly because of the track selections and also, to me, it doesn't capture the flowing work of art a whole album brings the listener. I think it is a little like taking a few works of art, paintings by a great painter like Rembrandt, cutting them into pieces like a jigsaw and then picking up a number of good pieces and attempting to put them together in a whole new painting... I hope that did not sound worryingly ostentatious but you get my point, hopefully! They do however, help to give the new listener a relatively introductory idea of that particular artist's material. Sandy Denny recorded some of her greatest work, vocally and musically, prior to her solo career in the 1970s and annoyingly this CD, 'Listen, Listen' fails to recognise some of that work. It is available on Amazon between about £2 and £7 currently.
Sandy could sing like an angel - little vibrato, angelic purity, brilliant phrasing; as if her voice was created specially to sing old Medieval folk tunes so she could vocally transport you back in time - this is an aspect of her talent that no CD featuring her voice can fail to do justice do, she was that good. She was also a brilliant songwriter and a pretty talented guitarist and pianist to boot. Her interpretations of traditional folk songs as well as those of contemporary artists were always brilliant. From her rendition of the traditional standard 'Matty Groves' on Fairport Convention's 1969 folk rock masterpiece 'Liege and Lief' to her utterly gorgeous version of Bob Dylan's 'Tomorrow is a Long Time' and her hauntingly beautiful singing on Jackson C Frank's 'You Never Wanted Me', whom she dated in the '60s, she demonstrated that she was a good at interprating other songwriters' songs as she was at writing her own. Then there are her own songs: 'Who knows Where the Time Goes?' perhaps being the definitive Sandy song, one of the greatest songs ever written - so beautiful it could leave you in tears. Sadly none of those are included here, the fact that the latter song isn't featured is a massive omission; perhaps this is because she recorded them with the Strawbs in the '60s and then the signature version with Richard Thompson's brilliant accompanying guitar playing with Fairport Convention later on. There was, however, a near accoustic version that could have been included or a live version... it's mind boggling when an artist's signature song, be it their best work or not, is not included on albums which were made to introduce their talents to potentially new listeners.
Another exclusion from these compilations is perhaps her most famous vocal turnout of them all, on Led Zeppelin's 'The Battle of Evermore', her haunting voice adding an ethereal versatility to the song and she remains the only guest vocalist on a Led Zeppelin track since.
Richard Thompson believes her to be the UK's greatest ever female singer songwriter and Robert Plant said she was his favourite female singer. 'The Battle is Evermore' being a Zeppelin song with Sandy only as a guest means it is not included here which is a shame as it shows off the rock n' roll side to Sandy's personality contradicting her beautiful, feminine vocals completely.
After an underrated stint in the mid '60s with the Strawbs, whilst still studying, as well as her most revered time as a singer with folk rock legends Fairport Convention in the late '60s and into the early '70s (Sandy was instrumental to the development of the British electric folk sound) and lastly a brief period with her own band, Fotheringay, featuring husband Trevor Lucas, Sandy ultimately went solo. Included on this album are a number of carefully selected tracks from each of those albums until her early demise at the age of 31 in 1978. So technically you're getting the best of Sandy Denny the singer-songwriter rather than the best of Sandy Denny the innovative folk legend.
One of Sandy's strengths was interpreting traditional folk songs and making them sound fresh without losing their traditionalism and since this includes no Fairport output, in particular, there is only one traditional song here, which is the second track 'Blackwaterside', perhaps made most famous by Bert Jansch or especially Anne Briggs who was the woman who single handedly influenced every British female folk singer after her including Sandy Denny. Taken from her debut solo album, 'The North Star Grassman and the Ravens', this traditional tune is delivered superbly with Sandy's confident vocal, always in tune and full of angelic purity. Sandy's phrasing is so outstanding and moving, yet she never overdoes it with the melisma. Accompanied by some solid drumming, Sandy makes it her own and delivers a stunning interpretation as the guitar and accordion steadily build to a wonderful end musically. Evoked by eery premonitions and dreams and the death of her band mate in a road traffic accident (she'd dreamt of a similar accident two months earlier), 'Late November' is an extremely popular song with the piano sitting behind Sandy's elegant vocals; the lyrics are poetic, ambiguous, abstract almost.
'It'll Take a Long Time' is taken from Sandy's second and most acclaimed solo album, 'Sandy', released in 1972; the haunting steel guitar flowing in and out of the background courtesy of Pete Kleinow of the Flying Burrito Brothers with Richard Thompson's marvellous electric guitar work subtly adding to the song's delicate layers and eventually aided by John 'Rabbit' Bundrick on the organ; Sandy's soaring voice, especially her ethereal echoes on the refrains, completing a song whose texture would be velvet if it could be touched.
'Sandy' is represented also by the title track of this compilation, another mid-tempo track with an instantly singable chorus accompanied by some fine instrumentation once again; the mandolins and guitars weaving joyfully in and out of Sandy's sweet vocals and eternal melody - the type that you feel you have already heard even if you have not. These songs are broadly English in their traditional themes of sailors and travellers and one of her favourite themes: the sea. However the production by Trevor Lucas, who she would soon marry, draws in ranges of influences that make the production sound fresh and exotic. Sandy always surrounded herself by great musicians who always sat subtly within the song always allowing Sandy's vocal to be the star.
'The Lady' provides a glimpse of what is to come by her third album, 'Like an Old Fashioned Waltz'...
By solo album number three, Sandy Denny had swapped guitar with piano and all but left folk behind in favour of jazz and a more pop orientated sound; with the inclusion of strings and big, poetic arrangements. 'Solo' is a very popular number with Sandy's voice immediately introduced with a simple piano riff sitting behind her vocals: "Good morning, good afternoon and what have you got to say? Well I'm waiting but I can't stay long, it's such a lovely day; there's a time to be talking and a time when it's no use. Right now I think the things you say are liable to confuse," as the drums, harmonies and guitars kick in at the refrain as Sandy optimistically continues, "I have just gone solo, do you play solo?"; the song eventually leading to a wonderful guitar solo which almost seems like an instrumental middle eight. Sandy's music at its best here. 'Like an Old Fashioned Waltz' is a delicate ballad with piano and a romantic strings section evoking images of romantic, old fashioned ballroom dance; it seems that the jazzier, pre-rock 'n' roll era is a major influence on Sandy's songwriting here.
The other songs from this album that is included is the upbeat 'Dark the Night' with John Bundrick's wonderful work on electric piano and prominent, bouncy bass, along with the epic 'No End'; the latter based upon friends, a painter and a traveller who convince each other to reclaim their enthusiasm and fall back into love with their respective hobbies again.
There's two recordings of this, an intimate, stripped down piano and vocal one and a full blown arrangement which is the one included here, the music creating the imagery of some of the song's subjects: snow, turpentine, the fall of the autumn leaves; the piano and light percussion in the first verse softly merging into a beautiful orchestral arrangement accompanied by what sounds like a Welsh harp, only Sandy's voice is more ethereally haunting than the music. A stunning song, beautiful storytelling: like a dream - poetry in motion. This is Sandy saying never lose your enthusiasm doing what you love because as she so often reiterates, time flies by so swiftly.
Sandy Denny's songwriting by this point was becoming more biographical, her lyrics wrapping themselves around particular subjects such as time, seasons and loneliness. That doesn't necessarily mean the songs are depressing, far from it; but they do tend to be wonderfully melancholic uplifted mainly by Sandy Denny's powerful vocal.
Sandy Denny was a fan of interpreting jazz standards as well with her mind set on releasing an album of such covers, reminiscent of the music she was brought up on; sadly the album was never realised and the inclusion of her cover of 'Whispering Grass' or 'Until the Real Thing Comes Along' may well have introduced another side to her, but neither were included here.
'I'm A Dreamer' is a stunning, straight ahead song from Sandy's last album where her voice seems raspier (she was a heavy smoker and drinker) but when she hits the chorus there's never any doubting the uniqueness of her voice; it's one of the highlights of her final album, 'Rendezvous'. This is an upbeat pop song (more or less) describing a fantasy of escapism and dream: "When the music's playing, that's when it changes and no longer do we seem like total strangers; it's all those words which always get in the way of what you want to say." With more focus on her range than just on her subtle phrasing Sandy's vocals are particularly powerful here in more pop-orientated way. However Sandy's voice is never devoid of soul, she had it in spades. An ever present piano riff and strings section kick the song off where some very solid drumming and a great guitar break by Jerry Donahue as well as Sandy's passionate vocal bring it to a beautiful crescendo making it one of her most intense tracks.
'All Our Days' is arguably the most epic track included here and is eight minutes of pure Sandy Denny luxury; her voice is spellbinding as it floats above the haunting, lush arrangement. Turn the lights off, maybe light one or two candles, turn off any distractions and take it all in. It's the best way to appreciate her talent. This last album was often criticised as being particularly overproduced, which is true on some occasions and a major shame if you lose someone of this vocal ability in the mix, but Sandy during her life craved the success and reverence that she is only beginning to receive and seemed to be taking her career in a more commercial direction in order to attain the status she so rightly deserved; as perhaps, until Kate Bush, the UK's premier female singer songwriter (Bush would later name check Sandy in her own songwriting).
Thea Gilmore has just recently released an album of unreleased Sandy Denny lyrics put to Thea's arrangement and own lovely voice called 'Don't Stop Singing'; if that is anything to judge by coupled with Sandy's final album, Sandy's music was taking the avenue further away from her folk roots as she entered her 30s. Her beautiful use of English and melody as well as the subject matter that she so often drifted towards such as time, the sea, travel, loneliness, seasons and loss are all intact to the end.
'Listen Listen - an Introduction to Sandy Denny', released by Island Records, provides an interesting chronology of Sandy's development from folk rock queen to a brilliant singer songwriter desperately taking her material in the direction of much warranted and sought after public acclaim. There is plenty of material excluded, in particular the celebrated Fairport Convention material, but it is hard not to do Sandy Denny justice in spite of which tracks you choose; her talent was that deep. If you're expecting an album of pure folk rock and fiddles then you'll be disappointed but this demonstrates Sandy Denny's depth of talent as a musician, songwriter and vocalist capably. A more diligent take on Sandy's music to begin with would be the double CD 'No More Sad Refrains'. All in all though Island have created a good solo-only introduction to 'The Lady' - a talent that the UK should treasure.
~ Tracks ~
Next Time Around
The North Star Grassman and the Ravens
It'll Take a Long Time
The Music Weaver
Like an Old Fashioned Waltz
Dark the Night
One Way Donkey Ride
I'm a Dreamer
All Our Days
No More Sad Refrains
This is a review of the 1999 Island Records compilation.
Sandy Denny was one of England's finest ever female singer songwriters, her work is highly regarded by both big name rock stars of her day and today. It was interesting a while back on Jools Holland's show when Robert Plant and Alison Krauss were performing tracks from their duets album 'Raising Sand', in the interview section instead of showing footage of either Krauss or Plant, both had requested to see a clip of Sandy Denny from the BBC archives. I first heard of Sandy Denny probably when she was named as the only 'guest' performer to grace a Led Zeppelin album, she duets with Plant on '4' on the track 'The Battle of Evermore'. She also won Melody Maker 'Best Female Singer' in 1971 and 1972. So why is she largely unheard of and rarely spoken about today?. I don't have an answer to that question, she's certainly as good as her label mate and contemporary Nick Drake, who's music seems to be everywhere now.
This 'Island Introduction to'...... album goes some way to redressing the balance providing an excellent introduction to her 70s solo work which sadly only yielded 4 albums before her untimely death at just 31 in 1978.
The first 5 tracks here are taken from her debut album 'The North Star Grassman And The Ravens', her good friend and collaborator in Fairport Convention Richard Thompson provides all of the superb lead guitar work, she also gets help from various other folk rock leading lights and former Fairport members.
1. Late November
A brilliant and moody folk-rock ballad with some exceptional guitar playing from Richard Thompson. I love the way it takes the scales/style of tradtional folk music but is an original composition. Sandy has blended a very 'olde' sound with the contemporary 70s rock sound and created something pretty original.
A traditional English folk song, covered by many artists down the years, Sandy's version is pretty impressive this is the only 'cover' on this compilation which is clearly geared to show off Sandy's songwriting prowess.
3. Next Time Around
A great laid back ghostly vibe, some very fine Piano playing from Sandy, a great vocal. This is almost a kind of 'jazzy' performance, a fine use of an orchestrated string backing and some supportive acoustic guitar playing again from Richard Thompson. The strings build gradually during the song and the whole thing is done with a lot of passion and conviction.
4. Wretched Wilbur
A slightly more 'upbeat' track again with the string backing, which provides support rather than dominating proceedings. A short track but pleasant.
5. North Star Grassman And The Ravens
This is the beautiful title track from the debut album, I always used to listen to this on my Ipod when travelling back to the Isle Of Wight on the Ferry. There is the sound of the sea in the background throughout and the song has a haunting but calming vibe, perfect for relaxing the nerves of a jittery boat traveller!.
6. It'll Take a Long Time
This is the first of 4 tracks from the 'Sandy' album which was Sandy Denny's second solo release in 1972. The song has much more of a 'country' feel to it and some good Pedal Steel Guitar work from Pete Kleinow. While perhaps a bit more commercial sounding than some of the stuff off the first album, this still retains the essence of Sandy's sound
7. Listen Listen
Probably the most 'famous' single from her solo career [hence being the title of this compilation], its not my favourite, as it appears quite a contrived attempt to be a hit single. Probably would have sat nicely next to a Steeleye Span chart offering and was one of Tony Blackburn's 'songs of the week' in its day, probably a rather duboius accolade!. Pleasant but very 'middle of the road'.
8. The Lady
Another more obscure sounding track with the Piano and strings back in force, the vocal performance as ever cannot be faulted, a decent track.
9. The Music Weaver
A song written about Richard Thompson and her admiration for him as a musician. Richard Thompson doesn't play on this and was probably very embarassed by the whole thing, being generally quite a modest chap....
I think Sandy's third album 'Like An Old Fashioned Waltz' might be my favourite of hers. It's perhaps a bit of a guilty pleasure as many of the songs have a very overwrought sentimental orchestral backing, but the songs are gorgeous. This is the opening track from that album and even has a choir backing!.
11. Like An Old Fashioned Waltz
The title track is more sparsely backed with Sandy relying mostly on her voice and Piano playing, though the strings do take up the melody as the song progresses. I love the vocal on this one, some quite flowery bits in places like she's 'Doing a Whitney' or something!.
12. Dark The Night
Not one of the better tracks on the album this is still another great lush ballad with a quite funky organ solo in the middle by John 'Rabbit' Bundrick [now keyboard player with The Who].
13. No End
Sandy Denny doesn't really 'do' rock, so by track 13 of this compilation we are still in ballad territory. When you're THIS good at it though, who cares?, I like the bit where she lights a cigarette in the middle, this is the sort of track that would have someone blubbing in the right circumstances....
14. One Way Donkey Ride
In 1974 Sandy rejoined Fairport Convention for a year or so and recorded the 'Rising For The Moon' album. When she returned to her solo career in 1977 its fair to say that the music industry had changed a bit. Singer-songwriters were a bit 'old hat' and this sort of thing was far too 'soft' for most tastes. It's a shame because her last album 'Rendezvous' has some great moments, and 'One Way Donkey Ride' is a very decent bit of songwriting even if the strings are now making up for some shortcomings in Sandy's voice, which was taking the strain of her drink and drug habits.
15. I'm A Dreamer
Having said that about her voice, this is possibly the most impressive vocal on the album and shows her skills as a songwriter were still in fine fettle.
16. All Our Days
This is a bit longwinded and probably one of the few tracks that I would reach for the skip button on, there is no need for it to be well over 7 minutes in length, but it is more experimental than some of the other tracks on the album and has a Brass backing, making it sound quite 'film soundtrack' like. I was reminded of John Barry's Bond soundtracks in places. Can't say she wasn't trying to do something a bit different. I think a lot of people working today who use this kind of 'classical meets rock' melding [Rufus Wainwright is an example] were influenced by this kind of thing. Lush Baroque Pop in 1977 was never going to go down well.......heard now though I think it would get a more sympathetic hearing. It's still a bit too long though.....
17. No More Sad Refrains
A short romantic ballad which both closes this album and was the last song to be heard on record by Sandy Denny before her death a year later. The title is often used to name a compilation or Biography of Sandy Denny, but its a fairly average track in her impressive catalogue.
So there we go, if you don't like 'folk' music you may have an image in your mind of what this is before you've heard it, but if you like Singer-songwriters, you really need to listen to Sandy Denny, clearly a lot of people making music today have, I hear echoes of her stuff in lots of people's work from Kate Bush to Tori Amos to Regina Spektor.
Also check out the Sandy Denny fronted Fairport Convention it was there that she composed probably her most covered and well known song 'Who Knows Where The Time Goes?', along with interesting and well interpreted covers of both Bob Dylan's songs and traditional English folk songs. It's a great shame that she died when she did as it would have been great to see what kind of career she might have had.
I went on to buy the 4 solo albums as a result of getting this compliation, and if you like what you hear you may want to do the same. The good news is that Island Records remastered these in 2005 so at least the catalogue has been well preserved even if it is still under-appreciated. 'Listen Listen' can be bought cheaply on Amazon UK and is a perfect introduction to the music of Sandy Denny.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Late November - Sandy Denny
2 Blackwaterside - Sandy Denny
3 Next Time Around - Sandy Denny
4 Wretched Wilbur - Sandy Denny
5 The North Star Grassman And The Ravens - Sandy Denny
6 It'll Take A Long Time - Sandy Denny
7 Listen, Listen - Sandy Denny
8 The Lady - Sandy Denny
9 The Music Weaver - Sandy Denny
10 Solo - Sandy Denny, Harry Robinson
11 Like An Old Fashioned Waltz - Harry Robinson, Sandy Denny
12 Dark The Night - Sandy Denny
13 No End - Harry Robinson, Sandy Denny
14 One Way Donkey Ride - Harry Robinson, Sandy Denny
15 I'm A Dreamer - Harry Robinson, Sandy Denny
16 All Our Days - Harry Robinson, Sandy Denny
17 No More Sad Refrains - Harry Robinson, Sandy Denny