Sandy Denny - I've Always Kept a Unicorn - The Acoustic Sandy Denny

by Jim Harris Rating:7 Release Date:2016-04-22

Transcendental. I’ve never heard a voice like Sandy Denny’s. This last week there has been a tremendous amount of energy spent over the untimely death of Prince, a multi-instrumentalist with a ton of albums, a ton of love throughout the music industry, and if there wasn’t as much grief and heartbreak over Sandy’s untimely death in 1978, at even a younger age (31), shame on the music world. 

She was a multi-instrumentalist as well, but what she had Prince did not have was an instrument for a voice. She, as far as my ear goes, defined the genre of folk-rock. There were more political voices (Joan Baez) and perhaps more powerful (Grace Slick), and waves of imitators inspired by Sandy’s voice (Linda Thompson), but there is nary a single voice as potent, beautiful, and powerful as hers.  

At least at the beginning of her career.  Sandy Denny started out with the band Strawbs, which she left when she realized they weren’t particularly folk enough for her (Strawbs would go on to become a Prog-Folk band, if that’s possible, that sounded like, at their best, Jethro Tull played at 78 rpms) but Sandy Denny made the right choice to join Fairport Convention, where her, and many others, would make folk-rock history.  Quite honestly, since I wasn’t around for this generation of folk, the only songs I like by Fairport Convention, are Sandy Denny’s songs.  Her voice is simply breathtaking in its beauty and power, dynamic range, etc., and the front half of this collection of demo’s ridiculously titled I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn (Which is the same title as her biography and is not a song written by her and both uses I would suspect, would have her rolling in her grave, as she desperately, throughout her career, wanted her lyrics to leave an impact) are worth the effort to listen to.  The back half of these songs are painful and difficult to listen to.

Practically 40 years have transpired since Sandy’s untimely death and there have been countless collections of her works and there is one partial redeeming quality to this collection:  Her voice is a pure and beautiful instrument that, even with just a piano or a guitar, her voice is transcendent.  When you listen to such songs as ‘You Never Wanted Me’ or ‘Late November’ or virtually any of the first 25 songs you can take in the breathtaking beauty of such a magnificent voice.  You could probably cite countless singers and folk artists who have been influenced by Denny but who knows where the time goes? 

I will cite one observation that may or may not have been entertained yet.  Richard Thompson adds a brief, rather uneventful prologue to her biography and this triggered in me a major, major epiphany.  Richard has written a ton of folk songs in his long canon since he played with Sandy Denny, and you can only imagine what each of these songs would have sounded like if the dearly departed Ms. Denny had been singing them instead of his crusty voice being there.  They would both be in some musical Hall of Fame somewhere.   He writes brilliant songs that so beg to be sung by Sandy Denny. Consciously or unconsciously I can’t help but think Sandy is always present in his life. Oh, well.

I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn, as a collection, fails in its attempt to traverse through Sandy’s entire career.  The bottom songs of this 40 song collection are just simply painful to listen to.  Whether it be from her drug abuse or stress of self-imposed desires to hit the big time (As she never did) or whatever, her voice is not as strong and there is a rushed quality to the lyrics.  The magic is gone.  This is when demos, outside of curiosities for collectors, do an artist an injustice.  And close to 40 years later? The great Sandy Denny deserves better.  

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