March 26: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Fairport Convention, Bert Jansch, Jethro Tull, The Pogues, Cat Stevens, Richard & Linda Thompson

After last week’s dabbles in the eccentric, we return to more traditional fare this week in the 1001. What is more traditional than folk music? There’s a reasonable amount of albums that fall under the definition of folk, although some are more folk than others.

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, ‘I See A Darkness’

Kind of a cheat but the most recent folk-infused album on the list. 1999 was something of a downbeat time for music: a lot of the albums of the era were filled with disconsolate brooding or moody lashing out. Will Oldham’s only appearance on the list is of the same ilk: song titles include ‘Death to Everyone’, ‘Another Day Full of Dread’ and ‘Today I Was An Evil One’. Oldham clings on to some hope that things will improve throughout the album, but it’s still a record to soundtrack 2am horrors.

Fairport Convention, ‘Unhalfbricking’

Wikipedia tells me that this was the album where they started stepping away from American influences, although with three songs written by Bob Dylan and another song called ‘Cajun Woman’, it wasn’t a massive departure. The lovely voice of Sandy Denny is the best feature here, and her songs ‘Autopsy’ and ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’ are the best songs (although the last two songs, both by Dylan, are both good). There’s also an eleven-minute drone called ‘A Sailor’s Life’ which amazingly holds the interest as it sprawls out like a Led Zep song. Some tracks felt kind of weak: the French-language Dylan cover is a dud. Still, the highlights are strong and the naff songs are the shortest ones.

Bert Jansch, ‘Bert Jansch’

Like many of this week’s candidates, Jansch only makes one appearance on the list. Recorded on a reel-to-reel tape, Bert’s debut sees him accompanied only by his guitar or banjo throughout. The minimalism strips the songs away from the cliched arrangements you might associate with folk music (fiddles and accordions and so on), leaving the heavy lifting to the fingerpicking. He’s more interesting when he’s steering clear of Applachian sounds: the banjo songs are dull but the weird chords and finger-picking is pleasant. Jansch was still recording up to his death, hanging out with talent like Johnny Marr.

Jethro Tull, ‘Aqualung’

I’m cheating here a little as this album is more like a rock album with folk influences, but I only realised this when I started playing it. It starts off promisingly with the title track and a series of recurring characters but, despite the wide variety of styles and instruments deployed, the melodies didn’t hold my interest throughout. The flute is perhaps the most pleasing touch here, perhaps because it’s such an unconventional instrument to hear featured so prominently in a rock band. Alas, no room on the 1001 for ‘Thick as a Brick’, the band’s spoof concept album.

The Pogues, ‘Rum, Sodomy and the Lash’

Shane and the gang are best known for Kirsty MacColl duet ‘Fairytale of New York’ but years before that, this was their crowning achievement. Of course, as their background was in punk (MacGowan had come from a band called The Nipple Erectors), this is a lot more raucous than most of the folk albums this week, laying the foundations for acts like Gogol Bordello. Among the accordion and tin whistle knees-up atmosphere, we have a ballad sung by the bassist, an instrumental, a Monty Python old woman voice and a version of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ accompanied by a brass band. Shane MacGowan’s drunken slur sounds at home here. This is a good album.

Cat Stevens, ‘Tea for the Tillerman’

The future Yusuf Islam’s lone appearance on the 1001 features two of his best known songs in ‘Wild World’ and ‘Father and Son’, although both are arguably most famous for covers (by Jimmy Cliff and Boyzone respectively). The album’s quite pleasant, with Cat switching up the tempo and instrumentation to ensure that monotony doesn’t kick in. An easy way of spending 40 minutes, even if I don’t think I’ll return to it.

Richard and Linda Thompson, ‘I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight’

In which the former Fairport guitarist and his wife start touring and making records themselves. Overall, this is the best album of the week: the medieval stuff is cornball but the melodies are the strongest, the musical pallette the broadest (it’s as comfortable with an electric guitar as with a crumhorn) and the singing from the duo is flawless. Clearly an influence on Kate Rusby: she’s even covered ‘Withered and Died’.

Next week: we’ll be going to the opposite extreme and checking out some of the metal on the list.

Status update: 457 heard (46%), 544 remain.

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Author: JT Wilson

Listening to all of the albums in the '1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die' book (2006 edition).

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