Plaisong – Reinventing Richard (2015)


Richard Farina ran with the East Coast folk brat pack in the 60s. He was pally with Bob Dylan, hung with Eric von Schmidt and Joan Baez and was married to first Carolyn Hester, the one likely challenger to Baez’s status as Queen of that scene, and then to Joan’s sister Mimi. Dylan, reportedly, was a little bit jealous of Farina who had real literary chops, a burgeoning reputation as a writer and was starting to make song writing waves. Farina’s dark good looks didn’t hurt his prospects either.

Then it all ended suddenly and unexpectedly with a fatal motor cycle accident.

And so he joins a list of artists who made an impact at a specific time and whose possibilities we may forever ponder. Would Farina have developed artistically and commercially or would he have run out of things to say? We know what happened with Dylan, and, sadly, we know what happened with Phil Ochs, another contemporary of Dylan’s and Farina’s. But Farina’s career never ran to any conclusion. The three records he made with Mimi have somehow stayed in print all these years, yet he’s not as well remembered as Ochs, let alone Dylan.

When I started seriously listening to music in the 70s, a couple of my friends were given to playing albums by Iain Matthews. Everything about them was so tasteful, so high quality. A mostly interpretative singer and only occasional songwriter, he always seemed to find great songs to cover. The albums were always beautifully recorded and presented and full of great playing (One album included Andy Roberts, Tim Renwick and Richard Thompson on guitars. Matthews knew great players as well as great songs. His quality control was always good).

I think the key to Matthews is his very beginning. As I filled in blanks over the years I learned that he’d he’d been a member of the early Fairport Convention. Fairport are revered as the inventors of English folk-rock, but before they turned their hand to a reinvention of the British folk canon they were, for a couple of years, a West Coast folk-rock band (before anybody thought in terms of “folk-rock” or “West Coast”) and a very good one at that. And after Matthews left that band he continued on the musical path that Fairport soon stepped off of.

At that time Fairport wrote a few of their own songs, but they did lots of interpretations of songs by the likes of Dylan, the then not well known Joni Mitchell, Tim Hardin … and Richard Farina.

So after all these years all these threads have come together with Matthews’ occasional band Plainsong reconvening to record a collection of Richard Farina’s songs.

The idea, as the title hints, is to present Farina songs as if they were written and recorded now. Obviously there is the thought too that they might find a new audience for Farina and his songs.

There’s a problem with this: You can take the songs out of the sixties, but you can’t take the sixties out of the songs. Several numbers here positively reek of the sixties – and despite the reverence accorded that magical time, nobody these days wants to get too specifically sixties. Consider Matthews’ one time stable mates the Incredible String Band. Back then they were successful and hip and happening, but now they’re at best a quaint artifact and at worst an embarrassing distillation of sixties clichés.

It’s hard to relocate some of these songs – the language and construction are so tied to a specific time.

On the other hand we get “Sell-out Agitation Waltz” with its stereotypically sixties title and lyric, but which also sounds like a blueprint for Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” (which means it’s not actually a waltz). So it’s not all a sixties flashback.

Certainly Matthews and Co succeed on the sonic front. The arrangements are fully contemporary (as far as the songs will allow), with tasteful use of modern techniques (a vocal loop on “One Way Ticket”, clever sound effects on “Mainline Prosperity Blues”) that Farina would not have had access to.

And boy! This album sounds fantastic! I note that John Wood gets engineering and mixing credits. He’s another link back to Matthews’ beginnings, being the first call engineer for the Witchseason label that Fairport (and Nick Drake, and the ISB) recorded for, and he laid down some of the very best sixties recording. Reinventing Richard has all the qualities that Wood was renowned for – depth, clarity and a beautiful balance that allows every part to stand out without shouting down what surrounds out (read Fairport manager and producer Joe Boyd’s book White Bicycles for more on this subject). And it seems free of the modern curse of over zealous compression – which means that the album “breathes” and that your ears don’t get tired.

Because of Wood’s fine recording you hear every detail. And the details are good with plenty of fine playing, beautifully clean, ringing guitar playing and strong vocals, presented with minimal reverb.

The best songs here, whilst clearly of a time and type, are very good. Perhaps best of all is “Michael, Andrew and James” which references the infamous slaying of three civil rights workers in Mississippi (the same murders that were referred to in the film Mississippi Burning). Farina deals deftly in Old Testament language. The song moves effectively between a minor key verse and a major key chorus.

“Pack Up Your Sorrows” is tender if naive.

And maybe that’s the problem with the sixties. Maybe we’ve had all the optimism and innocence knocked out of us by now. Or maybe we resent the life that Farina portrays – flitting around between countries, causes and beds with not a whole lot of care.

Maybe. Because “The Falcon” (based on the traditional “The Cuckoo Bird”) sounds an awful lot like a warning that the apathetic and the self-absorbed may end up on the dark side anyway. Maybe you can’t actually tune in, turn on and drop out. Maybe Farina had seen that things couldn’t last.

Maybe the way to see this album is as a lovingly retouched snap shot of a golden era when all the problems in the world seemed knowable, when the answers were just around the corner and – for just a short while – there was new wealth but not yet the treadmill.

Or maybe you don’t have to analyse the heck out of it and instead just enjoy it in the now for the skilful performances and the Kerouac-esque language.

And the sound of it.

There’s quite a bit to enjoy here, and you should.

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