Sandy Denny

The North Star Grassman and the Ravens

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One could argue Sandy Denny left Fairport Convention at just the right time -- her final album with the group, 1969's Liege & Lief, was both a masterpiece and a millstone, a brilliant work they would never top -- but her instincts were not as keen in terms of launching her solo career. Denny not unreasonably wanted a showcase for her own songwriting, but after leaving Fairport she opted to join Fotheringay, a talented folk-rock band but one that was neither as interesting nor as visionary as Fairport. Fotheringay splintered during the recording of their second LP, and Denny seemed to still be finding her footing as she set out to make her first solo album. The North Star Grassman and the Ravens was co-produced by Denny, fellow Fairport alumnus Richard Thompson and John Wood, and the interplay between Denny's vocals and Thompson's understated but striking lead guitar work is one of the best things about the record. With a gifted crew of U.K. folk-rockers backing her up, the sessions confirmed that Denny was still one of the most gifted and thoughtful vocalists to emerge from the British folk community, and she was also a talent to be reckoned with as a songwriter: "John the Gun," "Late November," and the title tune are only a little short of brilliant. But as good as the original songs were, and as compelling as Denny's vocals may have been, The North Star Grassman and the Ravens feels tentative and uneven. While Denny had the strength to do rock-oriented material, the covers of Bob Dylan's "Down in the Flood" and Brenda Lee's "Let's Jump the Broomstick" sound sloppy and meandering, and as sympathetic and expert as the production may be, the deference to Denny's vocals leaves the music a bit pale in comparison, while most of the tracks lack the personality they deserve. By any standards, The North Star Grassman and the Ravens is a fine album full of great songs and inspired vocal performances, but considering the excellence of Denny's music in Fairport Convention, it was a genuine disappointment, and seems pale in comparison to her next two solo efforts, Sandy and Like an Old-Fashioned Waltz.

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