Saturday, 9 July 2016

"The North Star Grassman And The Ravens" by SANDY DENNY (2005 Universal/Island Remasters 'Expanded Edition' CD with a Denis Blackham Remaster) - A Review by Mark Barry...

"...The Depths Of The Waters..."

Having done her high-profile stints with Fairport Convention and Fotheringay - a lot was expected from Sandy Denny with her 'proper' launch into the murky world of fully-fledged 'Solo Artist'. But with its modest peak-placing of No. 31 on the UK LP charts in October 1971 (and for only two weeks) - Denny's debut for Island Records was considered a let down by some – semi-magical by others.

Despite my four-decade love for her – I’m down with both arguments. “Grassman...” is a patchy album in truth with moments of brilliance nestled uncomfortably alongside material that either seems too ordinary for her incredibly expressive voice or is too often an LP proffering songs that just shouldn’t be here.

But this gorgeous CD Remaster by Denis Blackham from 2005 (issued as part of the 'Island Remasters Series' around all things Fairport Convention) has reminded me of what I loved - hammered home the magic bits – and it’s thrown in a few tasty extras as well in the Bonus Tracks. Let’s read those tealeaves and divine the details...

UK released May 2005 - "The North Star Grassman And The Ravens" by SANDY DENNY on Island Remasters IMCD 313 (Barcode 602498280218) offers up the 11-track 1971 album with Four Bonus Tracks and plays out as follows (57:05 minutes):

1. Late November
2. Blackwaterside
3. The Sea Captain
4. Down In The Flood
5. John The Gun
6. Next Time Around [Side 2]
7. The Optimist
8. Let's Jump The Broomstick
9. Wretched Wilbur
10. The North Star Grassman And The Ravens
11. Crazy Lady Blues
Tracks 1 to 11 are debut solo album "The North Star Grassman And The Ravens" - released September 1971 on Island ILPS 9165 in the UK and February 1972 in the USA on A & M Records SP 4317.

12. Late November (El Pea Version) - Recorded for the unfinished 2nd Fotheringay LP - it was first released on the Island Records 2LP 'Sampler' set called "El Pea" on Island Records IDLP 1 in 1971
13. Walking The Floor Over You - an Ernest Tubb cover version recorded during the 1971 'North Star' sessions but not completed until 1973. First issued in 1985 on the compilation "Who Knows Where The Time Goes" on Island SDSP 100
14. Losing Game - recorded during the 1971 'North Star' sessions but not completed until 1976 (written by Richard Clapton – no relation to EC apparently). First issued in 1995 on 'The Attic Tracks 1972-1984' CD compilation on Raven RVCD 46
15. Next Time Around - An alternate take without the Harry Robinson string arrangement - first released in 2004 on the 4CD "A Boxful Of Treasures" on Fledg'ling Records NEST 5002

The outer card slipcase has lent all four of her Island albums a genuinely classy feel (these card slipcases apply to the Richard Thompson and Fairport Convention Remasters - there's an advert slip for them beside the booklet) - and all four can be had for less than a fiver in most cases. True some better 'Deluxe Edition' versions ("Rendezvous" especially) - but it want the simple direct approach - then this is the one for you. The 12-page booklet has informative and affectionate liner notes from noted writer and folk-compiler DAVID SUFF (of Fledgling Records reissue fame) peppered with photos of a young Sandy, hand-written lyrics to the title track and a quirky trade advert for the LP's release. The only boo-boo is the 'Pink Eye' Island Records label on the CD - that colouring only applied to 1968 and 1969 LPs - by 1971 it was the 'Pink Rim' Palm-Tree Logo on all their UK LPs. The album artwork is pictured beneath the see-through CD tray as well...a nice touch.

The two-word secret weapon for this CD remaster is 'DENIS BLACKHAM'. Now based in Skye Mastering in Scotland, his involvement in restoration, mastering and remastering goes back to the late 1960s and his resume now shows over 680 credits to his name across a huge range of genres (including a lot of Folk and into New Wave). Blackham has handled all 4 of the solo albums in this reissue series and as you've no doubt read from other glowing reviews, each remaster has been endowed with truly wonderful sound quality - frankly because care was taken.

Musicians - all the good Fairport associated people are here - Richard Thompson, Pat Donaldson, Gerry Conway, Trevor Lucas and Ian Whiteman. Polydor Folkmill artists Robin and Barry Dransfield also put in violin and vocals on "John The Gun" while long-time session man Tony Reeves plays bass on the Dylan cover "Down In The Flood" and Roger Powell plays drums on the Brenda Lee cover "Let's Jump The Broomstick". But my personal fave is "The Sea Captain" where Richard Thompson's delicate guitar picking perfectly compliments the beauty of her wayfaring love song. For sure there is a dry-as-stale-bread plodding feel to "The Optimist" – but I do like the same strangeness in "Wretched Wilbur" resplendent with strings that make it feel melodrama-epic in a Nick Cave kind of way.

Sandy would go global in November 1971 when her name appeared on the inner sleeve to Zeppelin's "IV" LP – the only person to guest as a vocalist on one of their songs – the beautiful "Battle Of Evermore". But even that, NME poll-topping with Rod Stewart and an American tour in February 1972 – none of it seemed to put a match under the album's sales on either side of the pond. “Grassman” has always been hard to find on original Island or A&M vinyl pressings. In February 1972 to promote the US Tour – A&M Records tried “Crazy Lady Blues” with “Let’s Jump The Broomstick” on the flipside as a 45 on A&M 1331 – but it did no business.

Of the extras – the 'El Pea' version of "Late November" is superb - but the Ernest Tubb cover with its rollicking countrified brass baffles the ear even now. Far better is "Losing Game" – a guitar and horns rocker that would have livened up the duller parts of the album. And her "'s too fast..." intro to the alternate "Next Time Around" precedes a genuinely interesting alternate version...sans strings - it amplifies the lovely Acoustic guitar and is a Bonus Track actually worth of the moniker.

Of course nowadays "The North Star Grassman..." LP is looked back upon as a flawed masterpiece – good stuff on an album that got lost in massive Rock, Soul and Jazz release schedules of the day. But playing the CD Remaster in 2016 and you keep coming back to the sound quality on those better cuts - a restoration that seems to have lifted the beauty of these folk-rock gems out of their former muddiness. Sweet as...

I once had the privilege of nattering to JOHN WALTERS (John Peel's producer) in a pub in 1994 (I worked for Reckless Records at the time and we were buying his extraordinary record collection - he was even more talkative than I am!) and he relayed to me - his first ever viewing of Sandy Denny.

One of his friends in the music industry had begged him to come see this new English folk singer gigging in some Godforsaken bar somewhere in London - he did - and was duly blown away. I'll never forget the look in John Walter's eyes (who along with Peel must have seen so much stunning talent) - he was misty - like he knew he'd had the chance to glimpse greatness.

On listening to this lovingly restored CD - you can't help but feel that all involved in this project felt exactly the same - and have done this great British lady's memory and musical heritage proud. In flight at last...

PS: see also my reviews for the Various Artists 3CD Island Records Folk-Rock Mini Box Set "Meet On The Ledge" (another Denis Blackham Remaster) – and reviews of three other Sandy Denny CD Reissues - "Sandy Denny", "Rendezvous" and the 2016 Island 2CD Retrospective "I've Always Kept A Unicorn"

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