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An embryonic band feeling their way, but still a fine album
on 15 March 2004
The early Fairport Convention were a folk-rock band in the American Byrds / Lovin' Spoonful sense of the term, rather than the sense of the electrified traditional music that they would later come to embody. They were billed as England's answer to Jefferson Airplane which wasn't that far off the mark as the music on their first three albums is very similar to the pre-psychedelic Jefferson Airplane. This is their first album, as if you didn't know, and shows the band in a very embryonic form; compared to later work the music sounds rather thin and underproduced, although you can already hear the superlative musicianship that would characterize their glory years. The music is half group compositions and half cover versions of songs by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell among others. The band showed their characteristic good taste in their choice of cover versions, kicking off the album with a storming cover of Emitt Rhodes' 'Time Will Show The Wiser'. This is probably the highlight of the album but there are plenty of other fine moments, notably the brilliant 'Jack O' Diamonds', an exceedingly pleasant 'Chelsea Morning' and the Dylan pastiche 'It's Alright Ma, It's Only Witchcraft'. There are also a few duff moments: I've always found 'The Lobster' tedious and 'M1 Breakdown' is simple filler. Although Judy Dyble and Ian MacDonald (aka Matthews) shared lead vocal duties, Dyble's presence isn't very noticeable other than on the three Joni Mitchell cover versions. She had a pleasant enough voice, and very tuneful, but not a strong one; it is no surprise that the band replaced her soon after the album's release.
The repackaging job is quite excellent with an informative booklet containing loads of unltra rare photos of the band in their earliest days. The four bonus tracks are welcome. Another reviewer commented on their quality, but you have to ask how many unreleased songs from the band's earliest days are there? It is very interesting to hear the band's first single 'If I Had A Ribbon Bow' which sounds even less like the Fairport that we know and love than their first album does.
Taken purely on its own merits, 'Fairport Convention' is a fine late 60s mellow folk-rock album. We only judge it harshly in retrospect because we know that less than a year later they would release the superlative 'What We Did On Our Holidays'. If you're a fan of Fairport Convention, getting this is a no-brainer; both the music and the fine repackaging make it a must-have. If you're not familiar with Fairport Convention's work, try 'Liege And Lief', 'Heyday' and 'What We Did On Our Holidays' first and then give this one a go.