SANDY DENNY – I’ve Always Kept A Unicorn (Island 536 735-0)

I've Always Kept A UnicornWhat can I say that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? There’s the problem. I have to confess that I’m sometimes uneasy about the way that Sandy Denny’s catalogue has been managed. There are just three tracks among the forty presented here that haven’t been released before and they are demos from The Bunch album. Which means that the barrel has been well and truly scraped clean. There is nothing of any significance left to unearth.

The two CDs are arranged chronologically and present Sandy in acoustic mode – demos, radio sessions and stripped down masters – to offer “the best album Sandy Denny never made”. If you have a taste for Sandy rocking her socks off on ‘Down In The Flood’ you’re out of luck here. The first track is her best known song, ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’, recorded in 1967 with The Strawbs. The notes are vague about its origins but it isn’t the version that appears on the album and I suppose that it was possible to extract it from the three-track master. What it is, however, is the voice that Dave Cousins fell in love with, young, fresh and clear and it can be argued that this is the best version of the song that you will ever hear.

With All Our Own Work failing to get a release, Sandy returned to the folk clubs, recording two albums with Alex Campbell and Johnny Silvo and these are represented by two songs written by her then boyfriend, Jackson C Frank. Then Fairport Convention – two demos and two masters which presumably preceded the band’s involvement. Fotheringay is next with two demos and two radio sessions presenting Sandy solo. ‘The Lowlands Of Holland’, solo and unaccompanied, is particularly lovely.

The next six tracks come from her first solo project – two demos, a radio session and three from the BBC’s In Concert programme and the first disc closes with the three demos from The Bunch – guitar and vocal tracks featuring Linda Peters on ‘When Will I Be Loved’.

The second set continues Sandy’s solo career and adds her second stint with Fairport. It opens with ‘Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’, which the band tried out but which Sandy eventually took for herself. Here are some of her best known songs including possibly the best ever version of ‘Bushes And Briars’, more up-tempo than we are used to. It comes from a radio session as does an equally superb piano-led ‘Solo’. There is a piano demo of ‘The End’ which flashes past for all its seven and a half minutes.

The Fairport tracks are all demos, including ‘Rising For The Moon’, ‘One More Chance’ and ‘What Is True?’ but, sadly, no ‘Stranger To Himself’. Oh well, you can’t have everything. The next two tracks are live from Marc Time and I still find the idea of Denny and Bolan in the same studio a bit mind-boggling. Quite what his teenage audience made of ‘Blackwaterside’ I can’t imagine. Sadly, Marc’s introductions are not included. The final track is the last that she ever recorded, Bryn Haworth’s ‘Moments’. This is one of three demos made and features Ralph McTell on guitar.

So, how is my unease?  This set has been put together with a specific purpose and that is to present Sandy’s timeline in solo, acoustic performances. The mastering is excellent – a big hand for Paschal Byrne here – Mick Houghton’s sleeve notes are written from an expert perspective, there are some good photos and it’s true that some of Sandy’s best performances here. I guess that’s good enough.

Dai Jeffries

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Website: http://www.sandydennyofficial.com/

‘Late November’ – live in London, 1971:

STRAWBS – Acoustic Gold (Witchwood Media WMCD 2052)

As the blurb says, The Strawbs have created a unique niche for their progressive folk-rock sound but, stripped bare it is the ‘acoustic’ element that shows how strong these basic concepts were. Therefore, trawling their impressive back catalogue is by no means an indulgence but a necessity and as I listen once again to “Ghosts”, “Grace Darling”, and “A Glimpse Of Heaven” I marvel at the majesty of it all. There’s an inherent clarity from the instruments that drives everything along on a bed of string based accompaniment to Dave Cousins tortured vocals whether it be the chiming of his dulcimer/autoharp and banjo, Chas Cronk’s 12-string guitar or the lead lines provided by Brian Willoughby, Dave Lambert and even the inclusion of Ian Cutler’s fiddle is well placed for dramatic effect. OK, so the pomp element that always typified a Strawbs performance (much like it did with the Alan Parsons Project) may, on first hearing sound a little over the top at the end of the day it is these artistic flourishes that provides the listener with something more substantial than the often derided term ‘folk’ could ever hope to achieve. By the way, for those collectors out there, there are three unreleased tracks included as a bonus. 

PETE FYFE

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Artist’s website: www.strawbsweb.co.uk

SECRETS, STORIES and SONGS – Dave Cousins (Witchwood Media Limited)

For those of us lucky enough to have experienced the late 60’s and early 70’s music circuit, we probably enjoyed the most fruitful period of British ‘folk’ music. Personally speaking those days were peppered with the delights of my first foray into the art of the folk-rock genre including bands such as the traditionally rooted Fairport Convention/Steeleye Span and the occasional banner waving contemporary excursions of The Strawbs. At the time, I may have been more enamoured by the buoyant, flashy instrumental dexterity of Steeleye and the JSD Band but it was Cousins lyrics that made me aware that words were every bit (if not more) important to the construction of the finished product. Following a career spanning some forty plus years and twenty-seven albums to his credit Dave produced some of the best lyrics (at least in my opinion) to enter ‘folk’ legend and far beyond. Heathen that I am, I suppose I’m the kind of bloke that appreciates his lyrics to scan in four lines followed by a good chorus but in the case of Cousins (and Cat Stevens) I’ll make an exception. For me, it all started with the “Dragonfly” album and the decidedly weird but wonderful track “Poor Jimmy Wilson”… a song of bullying that leaves the listener guessing the fate of this tragic character. Perhaps, on reflection, the story is an uncomfortable read but at least it makes you think. The book itself is an attractively packaged tome housing two hundred and twenty one songs taking the reader on a chronological tour through Dave’s career to date. By re-treading his steps with sound bites and anecdotes from the early days of Sandy Denny’s involvement with the band (The Strawbs) through to the current day, the content proves a fascinating and (at times) grin-inducing read. Of course, the nice thing about putting cathartic pen to paper is that you can reveal as much…or as little… as you want in the full-on glare of a public who were originally only privy to your inner most thoughts by way of aural rendition. So, here we have Dave’s words, eloquently displayed with lyrics and stories side by side in an easy to read presentation with helpful notes on the guitar tunings he employed and the bonus of a ‘spoken word’ CD featuring the well-rounded vowels of the man himself. Now, if you’ll excuse me I’ve got a lot of reminiscing to catch up on.

PETE FYFE

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