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Soundbite

Our critics' picks in new releases

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Whether or not you realize it, you fell in love with Sandy Denny ages ago: the first time you laid ears on Led Zeppelin IV. Alongside Jimmy Page's madly strummed mandolins and the throat-busting shriek of Robert Plant, Denny's plaintive wail fueled "The Battle of Evermore," better known as the cut before "Stairway to Heaven." Since the timbre of Denny's hearty pipes nearly matched Plant's, the late Brit-folk diva never received props for one of the great, unheralded performances in the Zep canon.

Denny's own records, vividly captured on this ranging 2-CD, 34-song compilation, bear little resemblance to the hyper-driven duet with Plant. She embraces subtly arched melodies, maudlin moods and medium tempos. Whether nudged by the country-come-to-town guitar of her mate Richard Thompson or sitting pretty like a fluffy cloud atop the cushy violins of arranger Harry Robinson, Denny never rushes. Her God-given instrument blends power and flexibility, skipping between Celtic trills and low moans stripped of vibrato. Like a handful of vocal virtuosos--think Ella Fitzgerald--Denny's technique is so daunting that it sometimes eclipses the meaning of the words she sings.

Denny the lyricist, however, was no slouch. She wrote with a self-reflective pen, articulately tracking the slings and arrows of romance with unnerving detail and--more often than not--a sigh. Warning: This is melancholy territory.

A first-class brooder, Denny warbles the deep blues without ever bending a guitar string or flatting a fifth. Imagine a proper Englishwoman trying to get at the core of her own profound sadness, and you've got a vintage Denny ditty.

Fans of Fairport Convention, her finest band, will celebrate here the classic rendition of "Who Knows Where the Time Goes." Other Denny-heads will comb through curiosities like the previously unreleased demo of "Stranger to Himself" or a sunny pairing with Linda Thompson on the Everly Brothers' "When Will I Be Loved."

But then again, Anthology will work its baddest mojo on those who haven't really tasted life beyond, well, Zeppelin. After a second helping of Sandy Denny, those lucky fools will never be the same.

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