Fairport Convention’s Myths And Heroes

imageHaving lived with ‘Myths And Heroes’ for a few days before reviewing, in order to gather various ideas about it, there are a couple of things I think need to be said at the outset. First, the title track – one of several Chris Leslie compositions on the album – is one of the most ridiculously catchy songs the band has ever done. Seriously. It’s not the only real earworm on offer, either. But along with the catchiness is an interesting arrangement that highlights the rock side of folk-rock more so than a lot of Fairport’s more recent material, and intelligent poetic lyrics, viz:

“Oh Romulus and Remus / Were you really so uncool / You suckled from the she wolf / Did you think you had her fooled?” and then following the theme of humanity putting its trust in things that aren’t what they appear.

The other main thing of note is that ‘Myths And Heroes’ is most likely the best album by this current, most long lasting Fairport line-up and, as Dave Pegg suggests in the booklet, maybe one of the best Fairport albums altogether.

There are many reasons to come to these conclusions. Maybe it could be summarised by saying that while the band plays to its usual fortés (quality of songwriting and performance), it finds additional strength in the differences on display. One of these indeed relates to Peggy, as a hand injury early in the album’s recording saw his son Matt play bass on four tracks – Peggy senior even plays uke bass on one other song but the usual electric on others.

I think this and the production style of John Gale has taken Fairport somewhat out of its comfort zone, resulting in an impressive album of very strong material. There are no re-recordings of earlier songs this time either, showing more confidence in what the band does right now.

The most obvious example of difference and development is with the instrumental The Gallivant, a Ric Sanders piece with a gypsy / jazz feel that has seven members of Joe Broughton’s Conservatoire Folk Ensemble adding a string and horn section to flesh out the sound in a fascinating and energetic way; a delight to hear. Great drumming by Gerry Conway on this one, as well.

The sonic textures of various instruments beyond the “rock band plus fiddle” sound are usually added by Chris Leslie who adds whistle, banjo, bouzouki, both types of harp etc to various songs. Ric’s use of both electric violin and baritone violin on some songs practically gives the effect of a small string section by itself, most effective on tracks like Ralph McTell’s Clear Water, sung with appropriate feeling by Simon Nicol.

Simon’s use of lead electric guitar adds immeasurably to many tracks, and only when reading the copious booklet notes do we discover he is playing his 1962 Stratocaster through an 8-watt practice amp! Let’s just say it doesn’t sound like it.

Every single track is strong in its own way. In some respects, it’s still a typical mix of original instrumentals and songs by either Chris Leslie or various friends of the band, but something about the individual and collective quality of the songs makes for a collection at least as strong as its parts.

Chris still has to have a Morris-themed song of course, in this case Love At First Sight which takes a traditional theme of a woman dressing in man’s array to do something atypical, in this case join a Morris team! Excerpts of Morris tunes are used but in a less “jolly”, more minor key way, a trick also used with a trad tune on the title track. There are no actual traditional songs as such on the album, however.

Many songs have darker lyrical themes focusing on death and loss – far from maudlin, these reflective songs including The Man In The Water (written by Rob Beattie) and Weightless (James Wood) are captivating and memorable. The latter includes a Chris Leslie instrumental best described as a sombre reel.

On the other side of the musical equation, Anna Ryder’s Bring Me Back My Feathers is a banjo-led Appalachian sounding song that also quickly becomes a real earworm. An ongoing criticism of latter-day Fairport has been its over reliance on ballads at the expense of the rockier side of their music. Here, the ballads are still of high quality as usual (including Clear Water and PJ Wright’s lovely Home) but don’t dominate the tracklist and indeed, stand out more as a result.

John Condon, written about the youngest British soldier to die in WW1 reminded me in parts of the Albion Band’s Till The Time We Meet Again, which is no bad thing. Special mention must also be made of the dual-mandolin led Fylde Mountain Time (Leslie) / Roger Bucknall’s Polka (Pegg) that has melody lines worth the concentration needed to follow them, and superb playing on what might just be a classic Fairport instrumental.

The final track is Ric Sanders’ lament to friends who have passed, Jonah’s Oak which is a thoughtful and appropriate way to finish the album.

A few people expressed displeasure at the album cover before the CD was released – not so much the fact it is a pastiche of the ‘Full House’ design but with what was seen as an amateur attempt at photoshopping the band members onto pictures of their own heroes. But never fear, every other aspect of the booklet is well worth having, especially the lyrics but also the stories behind each track. Individual photos of band and guests are also included.

‘Myths And Heroes’ is a definite step up for the band in this, its 48th year and, at the risk of sounding trite, may well be the album the line-up of Simon Nicol, Dave Pegg, Ric Sanders, Chris Leslie and Gerry Conway were meant to make.

(Matty Grooves, 2015)