The title tells you all you need to know about this beautiful set.
Peter Marsh 2004
In the booklet that accompanies this rather fine box set, Richard Thompson wonders why Sandy Denny's music isn't treated with the same reverence as that of many arguably lesser talents. In a climate where Vashti Bunyan is revered as a forgotten genius and Nick Drake compilations are advertised on TV, he has a point, though I suspect he'd stop short of expecting to hear her songs advertising cars, pension schemes or hamburgers (don't laugh, it could still happen).
Whatever the vagaries of the nostalgia industry, it's hard to argue with Thompson's contention that Denny is one of the greatest female talents that this country has known, particularly when you've sat and listened to this beautifully compiled set. In chronological order, 4 CDs cover Denny's earliest home recordings, her work with Alex Campbell, the Strawbs, Fairport Convention, the much underrated Fotheringay and selections from her solo albums. Like the (long deleted) Island set Who Knows Where The Time Goes, it chucks in a few rarities, live recordings and session tracks, too, some previously unreleased and others making their debut on CD.
Though Sandy suffered from self-doubt throughout her career, the earliest recordings here suggest that her vocal ability was there from day one, even if it was sometimes hard to find the right settings for it. Compare the Strawbs reading of "Who Knows..." with the Fairport version (not included here, incidentally) for the evidence. Compilers Tim Chacksfield and David Suff have done a fine job, unearthing some hidden gems (for instance, a radio session recording of Fairport's "Sir Patrick Spens" with a Denny vocal) and cherry picking from Sandy's solo records. These were a variable bunch, and though there are some brilliant moments on all of them, consistency wasn't their strong point. Careful selection and the inclusion of some live and unreleased material from this period tends to give a far more positive account, and does leave you wondering what she might have achieved had she not died so young.
A fifth disc of home recordings makes this an essential purchase for the completist. The home recordings are intimate, relaxed and for me number among her best vocal performances (not that she seemed to give bad ones very often). Shorn of the sometimes fussy, overbearing arrangements that were loaded on them in the studio versions, songs like "No More Sad Refrains" and "The Music Weaver" sound fresh once more. There's even what sounds suspiciously like a Joni Mitchell pastiche ("Still Waters Run Deep"). There's also a few live tracks from Rising For the Moon era Fairport, but the band sound flabby and at the mercy of poor onstage sound (or maybe too much pre-show refreshment).
The accompanying book is stuffed with enough stories, photos and anecdotes to keep you busy for a good while (who'd have guessed she had a fling with Frank Zappa?). Sandy's early death wasn't self-inflicted, glamorous or poetic. It was just tragic, but an ordinary tragedy, the kind that could happen to you or I. Perhaps that's what makes it unappealing to the nostalgia industry, who knows. Regardless, the title tells you all you need to know about this beautiful set.