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LPs from the Attic: Sandy Denny and the Strawbs

September 13, 2010

Sandy Denny & The Strawbs

Listen, Listen

Sandy Denny & The Strawbs S/T (Hannibal, 1968)

I’ve already spent considerable time and column space talking about That Voice. Whether it arrives taking the form of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or Big Mama Thornton or Tim (or Jeff) Buckley, I seek singers whose voices aren’t necessarily pitch-perfect or classically trained or multi-octave in range; I’m looking for That Voice–a voice that transports me to another place, whether in the context of a song or an inner journey of my own. Credentials and pedigrees don’t mean a thing if the vocalist can’t sell a song; all the trills and embellishments become a distraction when used to cover up a singer with no passion or vapid lyrics. Note-perfect performances bore me in the absence of some kind of fire, whether emotional or spiritual or cerebral in derivation.

Pre-eminent British folk-rock singer Sandy Denny has That Voice. If you’ve paid any attention to rock music of the last forty years, or popular culture for the last twenty, you know That Voice, even if you don’t know who it’s coming from.

Mainstream music fans know Sandy Denny from her haunting, ethereal vocal turn on Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore,” taken from their runic-titled fourth album. Robert Plant called her the best female singer in all the U.K. back in the 70’s, and I don’t think his work with Allison Krauss, while fantastic, holds the proverbial candle to what he and Denny could have done with the British folk milieu had they pursued it in those heady days. It’s interesting to stop and ponder what could have been, and it’s remarkable that Zep never brought on guest singers before or after.

In more recent times, Sandy has gotten some indirect attention. In Cameron Crowe’s Singles, the Wilson sisters’ Heart (professed Zep lovers, cf. “Barracuda’s” capable near-tribute to “Achilles Last Stand,” for one example) masqueraded as The Lovemongers to record the best and most act-appropriate cover of “Battle.” The more critically unkind in our midst (myself included) see Natalie Merchant’s entire career as an attempt to capture the commanding–yet nuanced, wistful, and gentle–power of Denny’s alto.

Before all this, and before joining legendary folk-rock act Fairport Convention for a holy trinity of albums (What We Did On Our Holiday, Unhalfbricking, and five-star Liege and Lief, with guitarist Richard Thompson; I’ll get to RT and Fairport soon, dear reader. I realize how odd it seems to gloss over this section of her career), Denny quit nursing school to follow her muse. After having recorded an album mostly composed of originals, aptly titled The Original Sandy Denny upon later release, she briefly became a member of rock-leaning prog-folk outfit The Strawbs.

This lone collaboration resulted in a more even balance of Denny’s folk and the Strawbs inclinations towards Beatlesy rock, making for a portent of things to come with Fairport. The Strawbs were a fine band in their own right, and they went on to make some excellent proggy rock and roll afterwards, but they recognized the talent in their midst and gave Denny and her compositions a much-deserved spotlight.

Denny passed away before we could find out where that muse would take her after Fairport and Fotheringay (post- and pre-Fairport-reunion group with Trevor Lucas), but Sandy Denny & The Strawbs is a fantastic document of an artist finding her original voice. That Voice….

Recommended listening:
“Nothing Else Will Do”
“Who Knows Where the Time Goes” J.St.O: Great, acoustic reading
“How Everyone But Sam Was a Hypocrite”
“All I Need Is You” J.St.O: Sounds like Fairport’s approximation of U.S. West-Coast sounds, a la the Mamas and the Papas
“On My Way”

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