With a career lifespan encompassing 48 years and 30 studio albums, it would be surprising if any artist could maintain the same consistent high level of output with every release. Partly, perhaps, down to a history of volatile membership, Fairport Convention are as guilty as any of releasing material that might be regarded as sub-par. However, since the current line-up (Leslie, Pegg, Sanders, Nicol, Conway) came together in 1998, making its recording debut with The Wood and the Wire, they’ve not put a foot wrong. Indeed, each successive album has, arguably, been better than the last. That again holds true here as, after revisiting old favourites on By Popular Request, they return with their first new material in four years on Myths And Heroes, an album that mixes seven band compositions with six from assorted friends, as well as featuring guest contributions that include Matt Pegg depping on bass for his father who injured his tendon during the recordings.
They’ve been around so long, it sometimes gets hard to work out whether they’re showing an influence or whether they were the influence in the first place, but whichever way round the title track opener has a definite touch of Levellers to go with the Eddie Cochrane riffing of its rockabilly pop, the lyric of which addresses precisely what it says on the label and is almost certainly the only rock n roll song to reference Romulus and Remus.
That same filtering of influences can be also be found on The Gallivant, a lively shape-shifting Sanders’ instrumental that, featuring prominent mandolin as well as string and horn section arranged by Joe Broughton, whisks up thoughts of Golgol Bordello and Bellowhead. By contrast, Sanders’ other instrumental is a lilting, reflective fiddle-led number titled Jonah’s Oak after the tree of remembrance in the Cropredy field that sounds almost like the tune of some Welsh hymn.
Leslie and Pegg also each contribute an instrumental, albeit conjoined into one number, The Fylde Mountain Time/Roger Bucknall’s Polka double serving of bouzouki (along with mandolin and banjo) in honour of the Fylde Guitar Company and its titular head honcho who built the aforementioned instruments for said composers. Leslie also provides the instrumental element of Weightless/The Gravity Reel, the first part, an atmospheric meditation on loss and the strength to overcome it, penned by James Wood after seeing the film Gravity, with Sanders’ electric violin picking up the thematic theme in the playout.
If Wood is one of the more obscure names in the Fairport circle, Ralph McTell is certainly one of the best known and he’s contributed a new number to the album in the shape of the shanty-tinted and chorus-friendly Clear Water, a number which, driven by Conway’s military beat and sung by Nicol, celebrates Fairport’s past, present and future through the metaphor of a ship’s voyage over stormy waters. Anna Ryder is another familiar face, here represented by Bring Me Back My Feathers which, with Leslie on vocals and bluegrass banjo and a tune that sounds like it might have come from the American Civil War canon, began life as a number about a parrot and wound up being about happiness lost. Another regular contributor, PJ Wright provides the album’s penultimate track (and a fitting prelude to Jonah’s Oak), a slow-paced ‘old blokes song’ about the roots that give meaning to our lives.
Rob Beattie, who wrote Red Tide on Jewel in The Crown, penned the album’s least Fairport-sounding track, the tap-dripping rhythm and glistening harp of The Man In The Water weaving conjectures about a drowned man (possibly a suicide) found floating in the river. But if the subject matter’s dark here, it’s darker yet on the album’s stand-out number, John Condon. Penned by Richard Laird, the late Sam Starrett and Tracey McRory and variously covered by Mary Dillon, Niamh Parsons and Janet Dowd (from whose album the band learned it), it tells the tragic story of the fourteen year old army recruit from Waterford who, killed at Ypres in 1915, was long believed to have been the youngest Allied soldier to die in WWI and is given an appropriately haunting, elegiac treatment with Leslie’s harmonica providing a suitably Celtic air.
The three remaining tracks are all Leslie compositions, two being drawn from real life characters. The slightly plodding Grace and Favour is the latest addition to songs about Grace Darling while a dreamy Theodore’s Song (originally featured on his solo album) pays tribute to an itinerant Oxfordshire musician and watch repairer back in the late 30s, though how much of the lyric about him becoming a ‘raggle taggle gypsie’ after losing his bride on their wedding day is true and how much is Leslie’s fancy is open to question. The third, Love At First Sight, another rock n roller, is a playful 50s-set ditty about a woman posing as man to take part in a Morris dance and the strange effect she has on young Toby. All of which, parcelled together, sets yet another high bar to be surpassed as they contemplate a follow up to coincide with their 50th anniversary.
Review by: Mike Davies
Under the Apple Tree Live Session – Myths and Heroes
Myths and Heroes is out now via Matty Grooves
Order it here.