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English Folk's 'Lady' Has Just Gone 'Solo'
Listen Listen: An Introduction To Sandy Denny - Sandy Denny
Member Name: Goonerette89
Listen Listen: An Introduction To Sandy Denny - Sandy Denny
Date: 31/01/12, updated on 31/01/12 (44 review reads)
Advantages: The best offerings from each of Sandy's solo '70s albums - voice, lyrics, musicianship.
Disadvantages: Missing plenty of her back catalogue. Heavier arrangements than during her folk roots.
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
Summary: Excludes a lot but what it includes is excellent solo Sandy Denny at her most beautiful.