CD review: Fairport Convention ‘Shuffle and Go’

The promotional material states that Shuffle and Go is Fairport Convention’s 30th studio album. However, when one factors in the live albums, that number increases markedly. Add the seemingly never ending compilations of earlier material, and you can probably at least triple the total number of albums bearing the Fairport name.

But here we are in 2020, the band’s 53rd year, and also marking 22 years of the Nicol / Pegg / Leslie / Sanders / Conway line-up.  That of course is longer than many bands last altogether! Depending how you choose to count, it has been around 3 years since 50:50@50, the last album of partially new material, or 5 years since Myths & Heroes, the last all-new album.  That seems about an average length between Fairport releases nowadays.

The longevity of this line-up has led to occasional accusations of predictability in style, and unfair comparison to earlier “classic” line-ups. Naturally, it’s unreasonable at this point to expect groundbreaking, genre-defining music from the band they call Fairport, largely because they’ve already been there and done that, quite a long time ago!

So how might one see Shuffle and Go fitting into the scheme of things? I suppose, simply put, it fits comfortably alongside the other albums by this particular combination, going back to 1999’s The Wood & The Wire. Fans of what might be called the “Chris Leslie era” (mainly due to his songwriting, vocal and instrumental contributions) will be very pleased with the new album.  Non-fans probably less so.  Having said that, Leslie supplies under half of the album’s 13 tracks, the rest being from outside writers or the requisite Ric Sanders instrumentals.

It’s also notable that there is no traditional material per se, apart from the use of the Morris tune Old Tom Of Oxford in the title track, and a few other songs that are certainly written in that idiom such as PJ Wright’s The Byfield Steeplechase which seems based on the Skewball story.

This is not Wright’s first songwriting effort for Fairport – although he tends to keep his rockier material for elsewhere, generally –  and he has also helped them onstage at Cropredy when an extra electric guitar is needed, with the spaces left by Maartin Allcock and Jerry Donahue. For this album though, Simon Nicol is the provider of electric guitar which in places seems more to the fore than usual in recent times. Not necessarily in the form of extravagant solos, but certainly adding to the tonal palette, if you will.

Finally, to the songs themselves. Those who look for similarities in form and style to previous releases by this line-up will easily find them, and perhaps occasionally the same could be said for aspects of the arrangements. Probably the most obvious is the re-use of the Summertime Blues riff in the title track, last used in the song Madeleine on the XXXV album. But in this case, it is still used for a purpose, and the song is so damn catchy, I can’t see it really mattering.

It’s an altogether different sounding Chris Leslie tune that starts the collection however, in the form of Don’t Reveal My Name. Lyrically and musically, it has quite a mysterious feel. The tune itself and the repetition thereof is deceptively simple, but effective. This is one with Nicol on lead electric guitar and interestingly, not much Ric Sanders in the mix. This is remedied soon enough, though, and perhaps shows that this is a group recording, rather than one slanted to any particular member.

Leslie’s other songs include the typical violin-themed Good Time For A Fiddle And Bow, with a mid-paced, dual fiddle, old-timey feel, and The Year of Fifty Nine which shows again his fine ability to write uptempo folk pop. It’s also the first of his space-themed lyrics, which is continued in Moondust & Solitude, which I suspect might be a future Fairport classic in the making.

With a similar musical feel to My Love Is In America, the story of the loneliness of Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins while his compatriots walk on the moon is an intriguing one, punctuated by audio from the actual mission.  It’s an evocative piece of music, playing to the strengths of each member.

The usual “one slow and one fast Ric Sanders instrumental” format applies to this album as well, but I think in both cases, these are a couple of his best. Steampunkery is not really punky at all, though Gerry Conway does give the drums a decent thrashing as needed. It’s a medley of differently paced tunes, some of which sound quite finger-twisting, and which altogether may need a few listens to fully appreciate. Dave Pegg’s funky bass and Simon Nicol’s jazz chords in one of the tunes add their own unexpected elements.

By contrast, the album’s closer Precious Time is a touching piece of music which flows well, and which I would semi-confidently refer to as sounding like parlour music, to the untrained ear at least. I’d be more confident in saying it’s both a lovely and endearing end to the album.

Among the cover songs, Cider Rain (written by members of French band Rosemary & The Brainless Idols) is an unanticipated pleasure in a folk pop, almost 60s dream-pop kind of way, while Rob Beattie’s Moses Waits can probably be taken in different ways lyrically, with political aspects that can be related to here and now if needs be. The surprise with this arrangement is the inclusion near the end of aspects of the song Jambo Bwana, wth an African feel I can’t recall the band trying before. It’s no attempt at cultural appropriation, but simply apt for the song.

James Taylor’s song Jolly Springtime, like its title, has a traditional feel, and is the track with the requisite taking turns at lead vocals between Pegg, Nicol and Leslie. Endearing in its simplicity and with minimal instrumentation, it’s also quite short and therefore doesn’t outlast its welcome.

To my ears, other songs such as Linseed Memories and A Thousand Bars (the usual song about alcohol) don’t do much more than pass the time pleasantly, and yet they’ve both become earworms at various times too, which must prove something.

So, how best to summarise?  Shuffle And Go has a mix of the expected and the unexpected, probably leaning towards the former but with enough of the latter to show that the old dogs (as it were) aren’t completely averse to some new tricks.  Production and performance are both top notch, of course, with the album being recorded by John Gale in the familiar surroundings of Woodworm Studios.

There’s some predictability in the types of songs and some of the arrangements, which may concern some listeners and not others. But there’s still plenty of material which stands up well to anything the band has done for at least the last couple of decades.

Shuffle And Go  (Matty Grooves Records, 2020) is / will be available via the shop on the band’s website:

Reviewed by Michael Hunter