Released 38 years after her death and timed to coincide with her posthumous induction into the 2016 Radio 2 Folk Awards Hall of Fame, I’ve Always Kept A Unicorn: The Acoustic Sandy Denny is much more than the conveniently-packaged soundtrack for nostalgia and reading (it bears the same title as Mick Houghton’s 2015 biography) that it might appear to be. Granted, there is little here that won’t already be in the collection of any dedicated fan – with the possible exception of three 1971 demos for The Bunch’s Rock On – but where this 40-track compilation really scores is in its drawing together of the best of her solo and acoustic recordings. I may be wrong, but off the top of my head I can’t think of any other compilations that have focused exclusively on this aspect of Sandy’s music and it turns out to have been a very worthwhile exercise.
The three exclusives – ‘Love’s Made A Fool Of You’ (Buddy Holly/Bob Montgomery), ‘When Will I Be Loved’ (Phil Everly) and ‘Learning The Game’ (Buddy Holly) – aren’t, strictly speaking, solo versions: Richard Thompson and Trevor Lucas both contribute guitar parts but Sandy’s duet with Linda Thompson on ‘When Will I Be Loved’ is almost worth the price of admission on its own and is an unexpected highlight.
The first CD opens with the song that many might consider to be one of her very best, even self-defining, compositions, ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’ – this is the version she recorded with The Strawbs – remains one of the best. It’s followed by a pair of tunes (‘You Never Wanted Me’ and ‘Milk And Honey’) written by the influential Jackson C. Frank.
Sandy’s time with Fairport Convention is represented by a total of nine tracks across the two CDs. The first CD contains two demos (‘Autopsy’ and ‘Now And Then’) and two acoustic masters (‘She Moves Through The Fair’ and ‘Fotheringay’), while the second disc’s contributions are all demos (‘The King And Queen Of England’, ‘Rising For The Moon’, ‘One More Chance’, ‘Sandy’s Song (Take Away The Load)’ and ‘What Is True’). ‘Fotheringay’ is one of my all-time favourites, so it’s always good to hear it; the demo of ‘Autopsy’ captures a powerful performance but the sweet multitracked harmonies on ‘Now And Then’ are another unexpected highlight.
The woefully underrated Fotheringay provide the source of four tracks: two demos (‘The Pond And The Stream’ and ‘Winter Winds’) and two live recordings for BBC radio sessions (a gorgeous take on Francis McPeake’s evergreen ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ and ‘The Lowlands Of Holland’). While these tracks fit perfectly within the project’s brief – as the PR notes say, to compile “the best album that the late Sandy Denny never made” – it also means that group performances like ‘Nothing More’ weren’t eligible for inclusion, as it seems that solo versions simply don’t exist, as far as we know.
Nevertheless, it’s an admirably well-focused collection: more than half of the tracks are undiluted, solo Sandy Denny performances, recovered either from home and studio demos or live sessions and they are unquestionably the heart of the album. The live versions of ‘Late November’, ‘John The Gun’, ‘No More Sad Refrains’ and, especially, ‘Solo’ are arguably as good as it gets with truly ‘solo Sandy’ recordings and definite highlights of this collection, primarily for their displays of Sandy’s unique phrasing and rare ability to convey such a range and depth of emotion.
The demos of ‘Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’ (with its accompaniment of what sounds like a harmonium drone), ‘No End’ and ‘One Way Donkey Ride’ are equally gripping, underlining the point made by Mick Houghton in his excellent sleeve notes that the emotional intensity of Sandy’s live performances was too often lost in the process of recording in the studio.
I’ve Always Kept A Unicorn: The Acoustic Sandy Denny is a compilation that will be welcomed by anyone who’s ever thought, to quote Linda Thompson, “I so wish she had recorded a solo album”. Bringing together some of the best material available from such a wide range of sources, it presents Sandy Denny’s towering legacy in a way which is both respectful yet revealing. It makes for compelling listening and offers new insights into the creative processes and singular talent of one of Britain’s best folk musicians which is sure to appeal to long-time fans and newcomers alike.
I’ve Always Kept A Unicorn – The Acoustic Sandy Denny is Out Now via UMC
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Sandy Denny – BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2016
This year’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards will feature the Radio 2 Folk Awards Hall of Fame for the third year running. The Hall of Fame exists to recognise the special contribution of an individual to the world of folk music – someone whose impact and influence has had a lasting impression. This year’s inductee will be Sandy Denny – considered to be a founder of the British folk rock movement and perhaps its most important female singer, songwriter and personality.