Review: Richard Dawson’s “The Ruby Cord”

By Sam Goldner

Richard Dawson sings as if he’s waging a one-man war against all of modern civilization. His broken-down style of English folk music feels like it was beamed in from another time, each frayed blemish possessing an ornate, worn-in beauty. All the missed guitar notes and accidental voice cracks betray an intricate design, a refined musicianship somewhere between the brutal virtuosity of Bill Orcutt and the classical elegance of Joanna Newsom. His paranoid voice booms and rumbles like a doomsday sayer hollering from the side of the road, but if you stop to listen, you’ll hear moving tales of squalor, cruelty, and tenuously held hope.

Though Dawson has regularly reconfigured his music into gnarled, sprawling shapes, he’s gradually sharpened his off-kilter style into something more concise and digestible as the years have gone on. His last two solo albums, Peasant and 2020, were twisted song cycles that chronicled the everyday struggles of characters dwelling in the forgotten underbellies of society. The former took us into the Middle Ages, following stories of grieving beggars and vengeful sex workers facing down the malice of their oppressors; the latter flashed forward to the present day, locating that same desperation in the suffering of Amazon warehouse workers and UFO conspiracy theorists. The Ruby Cord, on the other hand, envisions a distant future dominated by virtual realities, where metropolises have begun to decay while Dawson’s protagonists get lost in worlds of their own design. It’s a looser, more free-associative approach for Dawson—one that still bears his uniquely unsettling touch, even if he seems to lose his own way the further his songs drift into abstraction.

If Dawson’s music has previously hinted at a proggy sense of scale, The Ruby Cord launches it to towering extremes with its gargantuan 41-minute opening track, “The Hermit.” The song’s opening 10 minutes are its most entrancing: Dawson and longtime producer Sam Grant concoct a delicate sway of flowing folk music, as brushed drums, a faintly strummed guitar, and hissing violin strings creak and wobble together in unison like some great old barge about to collapse in on itself. Even as the song picks up steam when Dawson’s voice finally enters 11 and a half minutes in, the track never leaves this simmering mood, gently humming along through a capella passages and pedal-harp-laden bridges as if it really could go on forever.

Of course, with Dawson, the music is always only half of the picture—his lyrics are where his songs come alive, and it’s here where “The Hermit” starts to reveal The Ruby Cord’s lack of focus. Dawson’s propensity for surreal and surprising storytelling has been one of the most powerful elements of his music, his arcane vignettes depicting a fractured portrait of humanity at its most harrowing. Comparatively, “The Hermit” never quite finds itself, spending much of its runtime exercising Dawson’s esoteric wordplay as he describes lush swathes of undisturbed nature populated by “vaporous shafts of a burgeoning sun” and “patchwork meadows labyrinthed with hedgerows.” The tale gains a little momentum once Dawson’s narrator is mysteriously granted the ability to perceive his surroundings in unimaginable detail, being moved to tears over each individual follicle of the bees buzzing by and the mushrooms growing beneath his feet. But just as it seems as if the story is starting to go somewhere as the reality of Dawson’s world begins to crumble around him, the thread trails off into nothingness, and a vague 12-minute choral outro carries the song away into the clouds. As hypnotizing as its headspace can be, the song leaves the distinct impression that somehow, even after 41 minutes, Dawson still hasn’t really taken us anywhere.

The remaining tracks on The Ruby Cord offer more pointed parables, though some reward more than others. “Thicker Than Water” marks the album’s high point, as Dawson suddenly brings us into the middle of some kind of apocalyptic event, singing in his whimpering falsetto of how “at the end/I didn’t really comprehend that I/was saying goodbye for the last time/to all my friends and family.” Carrying the song on his bittersweetly fingerpicked guitar, Dawson pulls the rug out at the very end, as his protagonist returns to the city only to find his parents hooked up to a Matrix-like alternate reality device, his own unconscious body lying motionless next to them. It’s the kind of pit-in-your-stomach reveal Dawson excels at in his finest moments, the tremble in his voice conveying warmth and fear in the same haunted breath.

Elsewhere, Dawson struggles to deliver the same thematic punch, nor the musical inventiveness that’s made his past work feel so original. After “The Fool” opens with a skronking sci-fi stomp straight out of Mad God, it meanders into a fairly generic love story, and Dawson’s acoustic baroque pop fails to bring the song back to the unexpectedness of its intro. Meanwhile, the stately “Museum” paints some pleasant imagery as it follows a gallery tour guide chronicling the human race long after its extinction. Harps spiral as Dawson reads off his exhibit list with a genteel remove: “Throngs of cheering football fans/A doctor crying alone/Riot police beating climate protestors/Babies being born.” It’s never particularly profound, though Dawson’s skills as a bandleader carry some of the slack as he stretches the song past the eight-minute mark with a swelling, chorus-assisted backend.

As ambitious as The Ruby Cord is, its demanding hour-and-a-half runtime never pushes Dawson’s music to places it hasn’t gone before, even if it’s all executed with his typically handwoven sense of craft. The insights feel slightly stunted, as Dawson trades out the pained, everyday compassion that he’s conveyed so deeply in his more earthbound music for dystopian scenarios that can’t quite settle on a clear premise. Dawson’s vision of the future is a grim one, and without the human element that’s made his songs so gut wrenching, The Ruby Cord ends up like a colossal, corroding monument strangely devoid of a soul.

Source: Richard Dawson: The Ruby Cord

Sandy Denny’s Solo Journey (1971-77)

Today, Proper Records, in collaboration with UMC, are reissuing four Sandy Denny albums, originally released between 1971 and 1977. We take a look back at the history.

by Alex Gallacher

Today, Proper Records, in collaboration with UMC, are reissuing four Sandy Denny albums, originally released between 1971 and 1977 – The North Star Grassman And The RavensSandyLike An Old-Fashioned Waltz and Rendezvous. We take a look back in time…beginning in 1969.

The Journey to going solo 1969-71

As many of our readers will be aware, Sandy Denny left Fairport Convention in late 1969 and formed Fotheringay with her husband, Trevor Lucas. Earlier that year, Sandy, then a member of Fairport, recorded Unhalfbrickling, and it was shortly after this, that the band went through a watershed moment.

On 11 May, after playing a gig at Mothers in Birmingham. Sandy travelled home to London with Trevor, and the remainder of the band headed back in their van. Sandy’s biography, ‘I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn‘ by Mick Houghton, recounts how Fairport’s van hit the side barrier of the M1 motorway, causing it to tumble down an embankment. All were thrown from the van except for Simon Nicol, who was concussed. Band member Martin Lamble and Jeanie Franklyn, Richard Thompson’s girlfriend at the time, were killed.

The incident hung over all the band members. In Richard’s words, it was a volatile time and could easily have been the end of Fairport. Musically, the band went through a significant shift and decided to create a traditional British folk album – Liege & Lief – on which there was to be only one singer for the first time – Sandy Denny. Even before the album was recorded, Joe Boyd recognised it would be big, especially after the band’s reception at the Royal Festival Hall. Through a series of interviews in his book, Houghton highlights how Sandy became increasingly dependent on Lucas after the accident, and the band were aware that it was this relationship that would eventually shape her career. She was also concerned about how her own songs would fit into a band focused on traditional folk. It wasn’t only Denny looking at alternative futures, as before the album was released, both  Ashley Hutchings and Denny quit the band. Sandy went on to form Fotheringay with Lucas and Hutchings pursued his love of traditional music in a new band – Steeleye Span.

Here is Sandy talking to John Peel in December 1969 about what she was planning for 1970…

However, things didn’t remain static for long, as after one UK Top 20 LP in the summer of 1970, Fotheringay split while recording a follow-up, leaving Denny free to make her first solo album. Along the way, the press, including Melody Maker, compared Fotheringay to Fairport, which Denny found exasperating. The album was produced by Joe Boyd, who, in hindsight, felt he should have handed over production to someone else (there is said to have been a conflict between Boyd and Lucas, whose approach to making an album was also very different). Then there was the extravagant spending that included the purchase of a Bentley and the notorious PA system they called Stonehenge, which required a seven-and-a-half-tonne truck to shift it. A disastrous concert followed at the Royal Albert Hall when they asked Elton John to support them…Elton stole the show. This and several other factors led Boyd and Island to persuade Denny to go solo…although they begin to record a second album on which Sandy seemed to be favouring more traditional material, and she only sang half of those songs. The album got shelved (to be later revived and released in 2008 on Fledg’ling Records), and on 9 January 1971, Sandy Denny announced through Melody Maker that she was dissolving the band. While it was all messy, many, including Richard Thompson, felt that Sandy was always destined to be a solo artist.

The North Star Grassman And The Ravens (1971)

This is always going to be open to debate, but The North Star Grass Man and the Ravens is, according to the press release, one of the essential British folk-rock albums. That’s not how everyone saw it, especially Joe Boyd. In an interview for Houghton’s biography on Denny, Boyd says, “Fotheringay became the template for her albums in the seventies, where you would have four of five great songs and others were filler material. That’s certainly the problem with The North Star Grassman and the Ravens…”

The album was co-produced with Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny and John Wood. There was some stiff competition around this time from the likes of Steeleye Span, Fairport and John and Beverley Martyn’s Stormbringer!

Whatever your thoughts, Harry Robinson’s string arrangements on that album are memorable, as is Barry Dransfield’s fiddle solo on John the Gunn. Needless to say, the voice of Sandy Denny is always great to hear; that’s the one thing you could never take away from her, something the record-buying public strongly agreed with at the time. The year before, Melody Maker readers voted Sandy ‘Best British Female Singer’ (for the first of two years running), with the ‘Best British Male Singer’ going to Robert Plant.

According to the latest press, this was Denny’s lone UK Top 50 album success.

Sandy (1972)

If you look at Spotify streams today, you’ll find that a number of tracks on Sandy’s self-titled 1972 album have endured the most with the public today. It’s worth weighing all that up when looking at Sandy’s music historically, as views change, and favourites are often made with the context of other music at the time. A good example is her cover of Richard Fariñas ‘Quiet Joys of Brotherhood‘, seen by many as an album highlight of the time; although It’ll Take A Long Time is the most popular in streams today, which even beats Who Knows Where the Time Goes.

According to Richard Thompson, who, along with Pat Donaldson and Timi Donald, backed Sandy for a two-week residency at the Bitter End in New York, followed by the Troubadour in LA, this was a happy time in her life. It was the calmest and most secure he’d seen her, even more so than her time with Fairport.

Island Records had high hopes of a big commercial success for this release and employed David Bailey, the most famous photographer at that time, to take her photo for the cover. It was recorded again at John Wood’s Sound Techniques studio and produced this time by Trevor Lucas. The album had a better reception than The North Star Grassman And The Ravens, and ‘Listen Listen‘ was selected by BBC Radio 1’s Tony Blackburn as his single of the week for his breakfast show. Sandy was terrified of having to perform on Top of the Pops, so it was probably a relief that the song didn’t chart.

Some special guests appear in the mix, including ‘Sneaky’ Pete Kleinow from The Flying Burrito Brothers on It’ll Take A Long Time with his unmistakable pedal steel playing, and New Orleans legend Allan Toussaint adds a brass arrangement to For Nobody To Hear. The press states highlight The Lady and Listen, Listen as two career bests. Despite this and Island’s hopes, it struggled to sell.

Like An Old Fashioned Waltz (1974)

Although recorded throughout the previous year, Like An Old Fashioned Waltz was released in early 1974, soon after Denny had re-joined Fairport Convention and released Rising for the Moon. Anyhow, Like An Old Fashioned Waltz is described by the press as an unashamedly romantic, sentimental album. Not surprisingly, it’s not everyone’s cuppa, but then what is? The two swing-era songs – the Inkspots’ Whispering Grass and Fats Wallers Until The Real Thing Comes Along probably didn’t excite the folkies. That said, the press refers to it as a rollicking track with veteran jazz man Diz Disley on guitar, Danny Thompson on bass and Tony Coe on sax – this was the only time Danny played on a track by Sandy. They also highlight her much-loved tracks Solo and No End. I’d find it hard to deny that this album does have a warm autumnal nostalgia. Sandy said of the title track, “It was supposed to evoke an idea about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing round a completely deserted ballroom with a spotlight on them… .” While it was a significant shift from her previous two albums, Sandy was said to be elated by this album, and while those traces of British folk are absent, it does really highlight the versatility of her vocals.

Here she is talking about the album with John Peel on her birthday.

Rendezvous (1977)

Her final album, Rendezvous was released in 1977 – a year later, many would hear of the death of Sandy via the John Peel show.

I’m guessing this isn’t her most revisited album; her voice was changing (huskier and less rootsy, as Houghton puts it), put down to prolonged smoking and drinking taking its toll, but if you’ve not heard it before, then you should definitely have a listen. It’s interesting to read the impression of those there during the recording sessions, especially Jerry Donahue and John Wood and how Trevor Lucas (who produced the album) is criticised for extensive mixing and overdubs on these recordings – “as if he was subconsciously trying to bury the sentiments of the songs.”

It starts with power chords on I Wish I Was a Fool For You – it’s an album with a big sound, something Sandy has no trouble in meeting the demands of. The label was, once more, aiming for commercial success (as the cover suggests), and the recording involved a number of live orchestral sessions at which, according to Jerry Donahue, she was spellbinding. He wasn’t the only one to feel this way; at a later orchestral session that included the recording of ‘I’m a Dreamer’ (a personal favourite), John Wood declared, “It sounds great – I love it”.

That this was aiming for commercial success is maybe most underlined by the track ‘Gold Dust‘. The press for these reissues suggests that it really underlines how Denny could be viewed as the British Joni Mitchell, and its late-night jazz funk backing (with Steve Winwood on clavinet) offers a beguiling glimpse of where Denny may have travelled next.

Sadly we will never know, but it’s great to be able to revisit this period of Denny’s career on vinyl.

All four titles are presented with scrupulous attention to the detail of the original UK first pressings and are available in audiophile 180gm vinyl.

You can order them here.

Source: Sandy Denny’s Solo Journey (1971-77)

Kiri Te Kanawa sings “O Mio Babbino Caro” from “A Room With a View”

Michael Stevenson September 2017

I read this morning on the BBC that opera singer Dame Kiri Te Kanawa says she will never sing in public again. “I don’t want to hear my voice,” said the soprano, 71, whose career has spanned more than half a century.

“It is in the past. When I’m teaching young singers and hearing beautiful young fresh voices, I don’t want to put my voice next to theirs.”

I don’t listen to much opera, but I do love Kiri Te Kanawa, whom I became a fan of after being introduced to her voice in Merchant-Ivory’s brilliant A Room With A View. Listen here to Dame Kiri singinging Puccini’s O Mio Babbino Caro” (“Oh My Beloved Father”), and Chi il Bel Sogno di Doretta.

Could anything be more beautiful? Thank you, Kiri Te Kanawa.