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Album review: Plainsong “Reinventing Richard: The Songs of Richard Fariña”

September 1, 2015

Reinventing Richard: The Songs of Richard Fariña is a new album from Plainsong as a tribute to, and celebration of, Richard’s music, fifty years after his tragic and untimely death. Read our album review, plus we have ten signed copies of the album to giveaway.

Click here to read the whole review at Folk Radio UK

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Scratching through the layers of myth and legend that have accumulated around the American writer, musician, poet and singer Richard Fariña, trying to apprehend the essence of this Renaissance man, this free spirit whose too-short life ended just as the counter-culture of 1960s America peaked, it seems to me that this couplet (from ‘The Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’) is about as close as I’m likely to get:

“For I am a wild and a lonely child
And the son of an angry land”

Although by all accounts he was a likable, affable and sociable young man, even from a cursory scan of his biography it’s hard not to also see him as a restless soul, driven by a creative fire that constantly burned within him, demanding his undivided attention at any time of the day or night. And while this symbiosis with his muse undoubtedly inspired the delicate yet insistent beauty that is left to us in his music, his poetry, his writings, one can’t help but wonder what the personal cost was to this extraordinary human, this “wild and lonely child”.

2-farina-insetNeither does it take a great leap of the imagination to recognise the United States of the 1960s as the “angry land” of Richard’s lyric to the 18th century Irish air ‘My Lagan Love’ (the source for ‘The Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’). The sessions for the two albums he and Mimi (his second wife, the younger sister of Joan Baez) recorded during his life took place against the backdrop of ongoing civil disturbances (race riots, student protests) within the US, as well as conflicts outside the nation – particularly the Vietnam War, but also the Cold War against the Eastern Bloc of the Soviet Union and its allies. But already, just three paragraphs into this review, I can feel myself being drawn into the enduring myth that is the life and times of Richard Fariña, such is its hold over those of us who like to dig a little deeper – and, as fascinating as it may be to speculate, I must resist the urge to add my own scratches to the palimpsest.

As for the facts around his life, his Wikipedia entry is relatively full, if a little dry but The
Richard & Mimi Fariña Fan Site
casts its net far wider and the result is a treasure trove of information. The Reinventing Richard Facebook page is a frequently updated resource, while the Fledg’ling Records website offers perhaps the most succinct summaries of both Richard Fariña and Plainsong, the band behind this record, that I’ve found.

Which brings us to the focus of this review, namely the new album Reinventing Richard: The Songs of Richard Fariña recorded by Plainsong (image below) as a tribute to, and celebration of, Richard’s music, fifty years after his tragic and untimely death. Iain Matthews and Andy Roberts, who founded Plainsong in 1972, are the ideal people for this project, having themselves been fans of Richard’s music since the 1960s. Both musicians have recorded their interpretations of various songs from Richard’s back catalogue and, as Andy himself says in the CD’s sleeve notes, it was Richard’s playing – “dulcimer with attitude… a full throated rock strum that drove his and Mimi’s music like a banshee” – which led him (Andy) to become one of our finest exponents of the mountain (or Appalachian) dulcimer. Andy’s words are also a timely reminder that the music inspiring this tribute was the product of both Richard and his wife Mimi; the three studio albums from which these songs are drawn – Celebrations for a Grey Day (1965), Reflections in a Crystal Wind (1965) and Memories (released in 1968, two years after Richard’s death) are credited jointly to the duo. It should also be noted, though, that the songs on Reinventing Richard are all Richard’s own compositions; Mimi’s own songwriting developed later.

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For Iain, it’s as much Richard’s lyrics as his musicianship that inspire. As Iain told me in a recent email conversation:

“I felt and indeed still do that to a great degree Fariña was and is a visionary, but because he was also a novelist, he had such elegant ways to say it. I’ve always been a lyric man and Fariña has certainly helped me in my own writing, to try and say something simple, in a different way … It was also in his delivery, because he was an innovator as far as being a Dulcimer player. Before him, playing that thing was always so damned polite and he gave it some heavy wood.”

As part of my preparation for writing this review, I compiled a playlist of Richard and Mimi’s recordings from the original albums back-to-back with Plainsong’s 2015 reworkings and, on listening to the whole thing, was struck by two thoughts. First, I wondered what the criteria were behind the selection of songs; I was puzzled why ‘Reno, Nevada’ – a long-standing favourite of Iain’s since his time with Fairport Convention – was omitted in favour of, say, a previously unheard song like ‘Sombre Winds’ (which, I gather from Fledg’ling Records founder David Suff, has never been commercially released). I asked Iain what had drawn him and Andy to certain songs and he told me that they had made a pact to not re-record anything either of them had already done, as that would have made it “too easy”. He continued:

“The challenge was to take the rest of his meagre catalogue and see if we could find fifteen songs to reinvent. It was also a conscious decision to not put a vocal on ‘Quiet Joys’, as Sandy had already claimed that title … We plan on taking the album to the road next year and when that happens, we’ll add the songs we previously recorded.”

The breakdown of the sources of those fifteen songs is remarkably even, given the challenge outlined above by Iain: there are five from Celebrations for a Grey Day, five from Reflections In A Crystal Wind and the remainder, excluding the unreleased ‘Sombre Winds’, from Memories. The sequencing, too, has clearly been given much thought, with the overall flow of the record being the priority rather than placing the songs in chronological order.

The second thought that occurred to me on listening to my research playlist was the radical difference in sound (production and arrangements) between Richard and Mimi’s recordings and Plainsong’s. This is perhaps unsurprising, given both the advances in recording technology in the last fifty years as well as Plainsong’s clear statement that they’ve avoided making an album of straight cover versions, instead opting “to conceptualise how his songs might have sounded, if written and first recorded in a 21st century electro/acoustic setting”.

Cover of Plainsong "Reinventing Richard"To my mind, the result is a resounding success: it’s as if the original songs have returned from a very long journey during which they’ve changed in many ways, some evident, others more subtle. The naïve optimism of the 1960s has bloomed into a clear-eyed maturity, tinged with some sadness for the loss of the way things were, yet it remains as self-confident as ever and ready to face whatever the next fifty years might hold. And while the “wild and lonely child” at the heart of this music is now all grown up, the essence of that wildness, that loneliness, is still visible beneath that well-travelled exterior, burning as brightly now as it ever did.

I’ve found it hard to highlight individual tracks when the collection works so very well as a whole; I’ve enjoyed it most when listening to it in its entirety – (in passing, it’s soundtracked my concurrent re-reading of Richard’s novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me to perfection) with each and every track offering something that has caught my ear.

I think the decision to record ‘The Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’ (from Memories) as two discrete instrumental bookends is absolutely right, both as a mark of respect to Sandy Denny and, creatively, as a great way to open and close the record. Andy’s dulcimer on the opening ‘Prelude’ version is absolutely phenomenal and sets the scene for the midtempo retrospection of ‘Pack Up Your Sorrows’ (Celebrations for a Grey Day) and the lovely interaction between the steel guitar and mandolin. ‘Sellout Agitation Waltz’ (Reflections In A Crystal Wind) recaptures the restlessness of the winds of change that gusted through 1960s America complete with thunderous drums and Hammond organ.

Deriving from ‘Xmas Island’ on the eponymous Dick Fariña & Eric von Schmidt LP which the pair recorded in 1963 during a visit by Richard to London, ‘One Way Ticket’ (Celebrations for a Grey Day) features doo-wop infused backing vocals while also managing to invoke the spirit of The Beach Boys in this laidback, bluesy reworking, but it’s the lyrics that stop you in your tracks. While I’m not suggesting that Richard was predicting the accelerating changes in global climate, it’s a lyric which nevertheless sounds strikingly ‘of the moment’, particularly in light of the extreme weather that California is currently experiencing. If I had to single out specific songs, then this one’s a definite highlight.

Originally released on Plainsong’s New Place Now (1999), ‘Another Country’ (Celebrations for a Grey Day) nevertheless sits well in the flow of Reinventing Richard, with Clive Gregson’s guitar and harmony vocals providing a timely reminder of Plainsong’s own long and illustrious history as well as the band’s love for the British folk tradition. A change of mood is signalled by the powerchords punctuating the slinky ‘Lemonade Lady’ (Memories), a moody reworking with some nice unison interplay between the guitar and the vocals.

‘Mainline Prosperity Blues’ (Reflections In A Crystal Wind) is another of the album’s highlights. The song itself draws on the rich Appalachian folk traditions that inform so much of Richard’s music while the lyrics once again sound as though they could have been written yesterday. The arrangement, for reasons I still can’t fathom, puts me in mind of ‘The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown)’ – the 1970 version by Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac – but this only serves to underline the barely sublimated anger of the lyrics. The bongos are an inspired touch, dancing nimbly around Mark Griffiths’ solid, four-square bass while Iain’s guitar solos at the bridge and the coda burn incandescently.

‘The Falcon’ (Celebrations For A Grey Day) is an ancient, traditional English folk song (Roud 413) which has resurfaced in many places over the years; a version by the Appalachian folk musician Clarence Ashley appeared on the 1952 Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music, a compilation which was well-loved and much-played by many of the participants in the American folk music revival in the 1950s and 1960s. Bob Dylan, Artie Traum, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary are among those who’ve covered it; Richard himself recorded a version called ‘The Wobble Bird’ on the Dick Fariña & Eric von Schmidt album, so its inclusion here is entirely in keeping with the remit of the Reinventing Richard project. Plainsong’s version is as sweet as they come, very much in the British folk-rock tradition – the spirit of early Fairport Convention lives on – with Mark’s fretless bass a particular pleasure to hear.

In a slightly lighter vein, the sunny ‘Almond Joy’ (Memories) brings a very 1960s pop feel to the proceedings; Iain gleefully channels Hank Marvin while the arrangement tips its hat to The Beatles. ‘Hard Lovin’ Loser’ (Reflections In A Crystal Wind) draws on contemporary Americana while retaining the rapidfire vocal delivery of Richard and Mimi’s original. The mandolin solo is suitably unhinged and there are some neat vocal/guitar dropouts towards the end, but it’s Mark’s take-no-prisoners bass that will have you up and dancing. I suspect this one could become a real crowd-pleaser when the band take to the road next year.

The sassy strut of ‘Michael, Andrew and James’ is the last of the five tunes from Celebrations For A Grey Day and is a loping, widescreen folk-rock arrangement which skilfully contrasts the song’s infectiously catchy chorus with its mean and moody verses. It’s followed by the last pair of songs from Reflections In A Crystal Wind, ‘Children Of Darkness’ and that album’s own title track. The tune to ‘Children Of Darkness’ derives from a traditional sea shanty, ‘The Handsome Cabin Boy’ (Roud 239), which has been covered by many others, from Ewan McColl to Kate Bush, via Martin Carthy and the Grateful Dead, to name but a few. Plainsong dispense with the traditional 3/4 timing in favour of a more straightforward folk-rock arrangement (with unexpected surprise ending!) with Iain’s lead guitar providing an object lesson in playing the right note at the right time in the right place. The irrepressibly optimistic ‘Reflections In A Crystal Wind’ is such a great choice for this album; the arrangement sits happily at the intersection of country and bluegrass with a lead guitar that James Burton would have envied. It’s a well-executed reworking of the original and is unquestionably another of the album’s highlights.

The penultimate track is the previously unheard ‘Sombre Winds’, recorded in 1964 and which, as I mentioned earlier, has never received a commercial release. Accompanied by acoustic guitars against an electronic loop (possibly a sitar?) backing, Iain’s vocal has an emotive power on this slow, introspective song which surely offers a tantalising hint into how Richard’s music might have sounded today, were he still with us. The album draws to a close with the second instrumental take on ‘The Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’ and it’s a very contemporary reworking. Layered synths and Mark’s fretless bass are joined by some understated percussion creating a sound which is poignantly reminiscent of some of John Martyn’s later work. It’s a lovely sound painting which conjures up a mental image of a red sunset at the end of a long summer day and makes a suitably gentle and affectionate coda to the record.

The making of Reinventing Richard: The Songs of Richard Fariña has clearly been a huge labour of love for Iain, Andy, Mark and everyone else involved; it’s to the credit of all concerned that the result is such a strong and vibrant collection that stands proudly in its own right and is an absolute pleasure to listen to. Whether or not you’re familiar with the music of either Richard Fariña or Plainsong is almost of secondary importance; if you are, then Reinventing Richard adds a whole new dimension – but if not, it will, I hope, inspire you to dive headfirst into the back catalogues of both and discover for yourself the quiet joys of each.

Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (01 September 2015)

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