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The Music of England

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Nancy Kerr & James Fagen
Starry Gazy Pie
Fellside FECD127 (UK)

Nancy Kerr is one of the brightest talents amongst the current crop of youthful English folk practitioners. A fiddle and viola player who combines the crunchiest of rhythmic bowing with exquisite tone and superb musicality, she is also the possessor of a clear and delicately ornamented singing voice. In the Australian musician James Fagan she has an excellent foil, adding chunky bouzouki accompaniment and a strong lead or harmony voice of his own, the duo achieving a tangible musical chemistry.

Their repertoire is largely traditional and predominantly English in feel if not always in fact, with good versions of several ballads - the highlight a particularly fine "Two Sisters" - and driving instrumentals including a set of 3/2 double hornpipes guaranteed to delight this reviewer. Their newly composed tunes are high quality as well. Sandra Kerr adds sprightly concertina, and the whole adds up to a enjoyable and significant contribution to the new wave of British traditional music. - Brian Peters (Fellside, 15 Banklands, Workington, Cumbria CA14 3EW, UK)

The Shouting Side Of Life Cooking Vinyl America (516.484.2863)

A diehard Oyster Band (Oysterband.... Oysters next?) fan is not to be trusted to do a review with any perspective or objectivity. With only one exception, I have never been let down by a recording by this band. Each album makes the description "folk rock" or "celto-pop" or whatever else, thoroughly useless. Rather than mellow with age and seek more sophisticated, measured approaches, they have developed more edge, more energy, more rawness with each passing year. Just listen to "Jam Today" ("shit tomorrow") to see where they are heading. Is it folk? Hell yes. Hell no! Political, funny, angry and optimistic, it's what happens when the Oysters touch a song. They even take a brilliant song as overworked and over-covered as Leon Rosselson's "World Turned Upside Down" (no kids, Billy didn't write it) and make a new song of it, every bit as good as all the other versions called definitive over the years. They lack the bad-attitude stupidity of the Pogues, all the better for a band who really invented the 90s folk-rock genre long before the nineties started. Oysterband get better every decade. Not many of us can say that.

Andrew Cronshaw is an exceptional musician, not so much for his technical virtuoisty on a number of instruments as for his appreciation of the beauty and simplicity of those instruments. Primitive flutes, woodwinds and zithers acoustic and electric are his main tools. His mastery of them is undisputed. It is his ability to turn them in new directions while holding true to their ancient intent that truly sets him apart. On The Language Of Snakes (Special Delivery-Topic-UK) he explores many of Europe's most mystical vistas with a an eye towards the faintly skewed. Joined by Finnish nykleharper Arto J�rvel�, Ric Sander's fiddle, B J Cole's pedal steel plus harmonica, reeds, bass, kantele, etc., Cronshaw has arranged a series of songs from the british isles, Finland and Spain that defy theoir roots as they emulate them.

Robb Johnson And Pip Collings
Irregular Records

Robb Johnson is one of Britain's revolutionary folk singer/songwriter, lacking Billy Bragg's brash pretension and the better for it. Pip Collings' thick, earthy, back-to basic vocals are a pleasure. On Overnight they finally find their stride together, in a simple live recording of guitar, shaker and voices, with a bit of backing (way-backing!) bass from Graham Barnes. Pub music with a message, you might call it. Here are fifteen songs of simple diversions, real life loves and real time struggles, laced with big issues presented in 1:1 scale. Johnson's songs thrive on the populist image of everybody's ability to change their lives and the world around them. "Small Revolutions" exemplifies this, in a folky calypso that states "without the people, the bus has no where to go." Each song is a vignette of people caught in the middle of a crazy world, failing or winning, but somehow finding themselves still grinning that grin we all try to maintain in the face of it all. Overnight will require a few listens to catch you, but it will catch you. There's no flash, no funk, no clever hooks or slippery slogans, just two voices with something to tell you on a late night over a draft or two. - CF

Robb Johnson And Pip Collings
Heart's Desire
Irregular Records

previous release was a sparse, clean recording of guitar and voice. The newest one expands the instrumentation to include melodeon, fiddle, pipes, percussion and such, but it never looses that same crisp, live sound as they go through pseudo-calypso, Irish lullaby and angry folk/rock. Pip has one of those pointed deliveries that pulls you into every song. But it is the writing that commands the most attention. Whether it's a love song you could have lived through yourself or another scathing indictment of "Merrie Olde Englande," Johnson manages to take both complex and simple events and emotions and distill them into personal, immediate messages. Heart's Desire is 16 snippets of real life, devoid of the usual jaded professional viewpoint. Even at their most political, they are genuine and humane. Their voices and their stories make you feel like you are sharing real life rather than clever fiction, with people who really care about the world we live in. - CF

John B. Spencer's Parlour Games
Sunday's Best
Round Tower

I am once again obliged to point out his craftsmanship, the choice of words, the subtle complexity disguised as simplicity in both his music and his images. On Sunday's Best (Round Tower, 16 Grand Canal St., Dublin 4, Ireland), John B. Spencer's Parlour Games presents another set of stories fashioned with just the right mix of clarity and mystery. He's a romantic, lamenting the passing of love, wishing for the old days he knows damn well never existed. That is one of his strengths, a sardonic wistfulness that hooks and reels you in when your guard is down. Tunes like "The Hand That You're Holding" have both an old-timey fancy and the clever turn of a familiar phrase. Spencer is playing acoustic guitars these days, with mandolin, accordions, percussion, harmonica, bass and cello in the band. They waltz, they reel and they rock hard, in spite of (because of?) their acoustic nature. Long time fans will note that in addition to fine new songs, Spencer's also given fresh slants to "Cry, Baby, Cry," and "One More Whiskey," and taped a choked-with-smoke revision of "Cocaine Blues." More skiffle and country with each album, the Parlour Games band is finding a groove that fits well with Spencer's unique talent. - CF

Billy Bragg has always blurred the distinction (hell, obliterated it) between folk and pop. He's been folk-punk and soul man, political rebel and hopeless romantic. Now he's an approaching-middle-age dad faced with the inevitable compromises and he comes from back from hiatus with one of his better records. William Bloke (Elektra) is pithy and warm, political but more personal, the story of a modern Brit who finds himself "trapped in a haircut he no longer believed in" and ready to look the conflicts straight in the eye and smile. There some brilliant moments here, not the least being the somber "Goalhanger" with its hefty strong dose of disenchantment and disillusion with the world, tempered with classic Bragg irony and wit, and delivered with a wry calypso horn groove. This Bloke still has it and delivers another winning set of tunes. - CF

Richard Thompson
Watching The Dark
Hannibal, Rykodisc

This three CD set is a veritable fan orgy, with gushy notes and personal details that only the most hardcore Thompson-phile will be able to tolerate, but the music contained here should convince any listener with a breath left that Richard Thompson is, at his best, one of the most creative people on the Euro-American pop scene today. Watching The Dark includes obscure live acoustic tracks, familiar pop hits and some songs even his most ardent collectors haven't heard. It reaches back for some classic Fairport Convention, a number of cuts from his first solo endeavor (and still one of his most idiosyncratic records) Henry The Human Fly, and then plows through 20 years of power pop and acoustic folk. Endless tracks are worth recommending. "From Galway To Graceland" is a live acoustic guitar and voice number, a typically dark but humane Thompson song with a guitar accompaniment that will inspire budding pickers to trash their instruments in despair. The blistering rock ballad "When The Spell Is Broken" gains even more jagged edges in the live version recording in Boston in 1986. But the core of the record for me is the pieces that include one of the best rock lineups I know of, the late 70's, early 80's band with Dave Mattacks on drums, Pete Zorn or Dave Pegg on bass, and John Kirkpatrick's accordion anchoring the rhythm section. If there's a gross oversight in the album, its the omission of this crew's 1975 rendition of "Calvary Cross" in favor of a blistering, but less bizarre version. Nit picks, of course, but everybody's gonna have one or two in a set this big. And if this isn't enough, there's more to come, with two "cover" sets, one from Britain's Hokey Pokey fanzine and a major label issue that will include Los Lobos, Bonnie Raitt and REM doing their favorite Thompson tunes. Richard himself has a new album coming out this summer, as well, so call it the year of doom and gloom and grin. - CF

Welcome back to the sound of a band you never heard of. Tiger Moth, aka Orchestre Super Moth are back out of Mothballs (Omnium) with the sound that Edward II tried to revive but never really got a grip on. Accordion dub tunes, English country dances with Gambian kora riffs, Cornish soukous and juju slide guitars all dance to a merry Mustaphan polka beat. Fueled by some of Britain's best folk and dance musicians, the Moths flew bravely (and sometimes witlessly) into the flame of "world music," sometimes coming out singed but often burning brightly and beautifully before disappearing. Names like Stradling, Anderson, Moore, Holland and Coe were pushed on by the likes of Hijaz Mustapha and Abdul Tee-Jay. This was one bizarre band, and short as the Moth's life was, it was one worth remembering. - CF

June Tabor
Green Linnet

Devastating is the adjective I kept coming back to as I went through Aleyn for about the 50th time. It came to me a few measures into the opening track, Richard Thompson's "The Great Valerio." June Tabor's frosted vocal, plaintive and yet stylish, is carried on a lone accordion playing only a few notes, punctured by a vague violin line floating way underneath. Desolate was the word as I got to her rendition of Ralph McTell's murder ballad, "Bentley and Craig," tensely portrayed over a jazz piano, at which point I was losing track of low adjectives to describe the spirit of this moving, sparse and utterly depressing album of songs.

June Tabor has never been one to toss off a happy tune, but this? This is brilliant, in a strange, unexpected sort of way. It's mood altering of a high degree, and it's mostly in the voice, a voice so unlike the sincere folk balladeer (the early JT) or the slight pop diva (the more recent JT). At her best, she has synthesized a plain singer of folk music with a blues torch singer, yet neither really ever completely described her at any one point. Who else could take a Caribbean sea shanty ("Shallow Brown") and turn it into an a capella song of longing and loss? What other non-Jewish singer could sing "Di Nacht," a 1920s lament on the emigrant's condition with such potency? Even the more uptempo "Fair Maid Of Islington" has an eerie quality, if for nothing more than the company it keeps. Who else could take twelve songs of such complete diversity and wrap them into such a wondrous, beautiful shroud?

June Tabor's work has always explored the fine line between sparse beauty and barren starkness. On Angel Tiger (Green Linnet) she and producer John Ravenhall have crafted the perfect model for the former on "Joseph Cross." Tabor's incredible voice is carried on a thin accordion line, mystic Native American and Brazilian percussion and flashes of flute and cello. Space is given to the powerful lyrics of Eric Taylor's song. This one belongs in a production text book.

Kathryn Tickell
The Gathering
Park Records

Mention the bagpipes, and almost every non-player will be generous if they use the word "quirky." But the pipes, particularly in the hands of a talented and sensitive artist like KATHRYN TICKELL can be as expressive as any tool available. Tickell has been crossing the Northumbrian borders for a decade now, and her work has ranged from the adamantly traditional to the outer fringes. As a piper and as a fiddler, she has explored a uniquely English music and given it a northern flair that sets it apart from many of the other Brit folk innovators of the last decade or two. The Gathering presents Tickell in a small trio with bass and guitar (and notably, no drums or percussion), tightly arranged and trimmed, and shows off her considerable skills on both instruments in tradition tunes and a few more lavish numbers. The band provides crisp backing, joined occasionally by a piano. Two tracks include appearances by the harmonica of the phenomenal Brendan Power, one a roaring, bluesy pipe and harp duet first heard on the Real World live album, The Gathering (same name, different album), the other a stately wedding march. Tickell has always been one of my favorite unknowns (here in the U.S., anyway), and she deserves wider recognition for her work. - Cliff Furnald

Tunes With A Heart! (Schutzenstr. 31, 23558 Lubeck, Germany)

I've long admired Pressgang for their ability to provide no-holds-barred folk-punk. And this is English electro-acoustic folk-punk with a capital "E" and a capital "NGLISH," the kind of waggish onslaught on tradition that is definitely not for the faint of heart. In fact -- this album may very well redefine the genre. I am mystified by the lack of attention "Fire!" has received in both the overseas and domestic press.

This edition of Pressgang is sans the fiddle of Imogen Gunner, returning the band to its testosterone-fueled roots. It's as if they have stripped down the sound, become leaner, but cranked up the volume. The "Cutty Wren" starts things off, droning in on bass hum and accordion before Tony Lyons' frenetic pagan drumming takes over. The ancient tune is invested with all sorts of urgent energy, and you can tell that lead vocalist Damian Clarke is poised at the microphone with all sorts of illicit treats in mind for the rest of the album.

"Take a Jump" is magnificent, topical English folk with an irrestible reggae backbeat. Pressgang have always excelled in writing songs whose lyrics have the timeless ring of seasons and magic, and no song on "Fire!" disappoints in that regard.

The band reworks "Hard Times of Old England" into "Hard Times," a screaming modern funk-rap, replete with Ye Olde recorder break. It's a coup for mining the tradition in the punker's idiom, and high marks go to Cliff Eastabrook's thundering bass work throughout "Fire!"

But Fire! is not all wham bam thank you ma'am..."Bad Bread" (concerning ergot, a fungus that is the source of LSD, infecting a village's bread and driving the hapless folks crazy) and "John Knox" display Pressgang's acapella bent. These are rousing enough outings in their own right, mysterious breaks in the midst of righteous Englishness. On the instrumental side, check out "Sherrif's Ride," with its enthusiastic yells and aggressive accordion, drum, bass, and guitar attack that captures all the roving speed of law and order in the dead of night.

But nothing, NOTHING can prepare you for the sheer genius of "Merrily, Merrily." A lengthy song of the devil, "a worm in his mouth and a thorn in his tail," this is conceptual art-folk. "What d'ye lack?" asks the devil during his monologue to the listener, enticing us with a list of dark deeds. But remember -- "Everything has a price..." A stirring example of Pressgang at the height of their powers, "Merrily, Merrily" closes out the CD with fiery menace indeed. Even with repeated listenings, Fire has not lost its spark. - Lee Blackstone

Music For The Motherless Child
Water Lily

Red House

Once again Water Lily's Kavi Alexander has found a bridge between cultures and brought together to outstanding musicians who create a music outside of either's experience, a sum greater than the parts. Pipa player Wu Man has performed with the most important artists in Chinese modern classical music, as well as with a diverse group of world renowned folks like Kronos Quartet, New York New Music Consort and the Boston Symphony. Her instrument, a cousin of the lute and oud is a four stringed, pear-shaped affair of rosewood and wu-t'ung, fretted to allow for a lot of free movement and struck with a hand full of plectrums. Martin Simpson has made his name as an innovative guitarist with June Tabor, The Albion Band and a host of British roots illuminaries. He is equally adept at jazz, blues and traditional folk music. On a spring evening in Santa Barbara, CA, these two met for the first time, and for the next 7 hours traded music with one another, a free exchange of each musician's roots, grasping for the other's musical center, finding old sounds in the common elements and new sounds in their diversity. Motherless Child is an exploration of how one song can have so many meanings depending on who plays the tune.

On Live you get to meet Simpson the singer/guitarist, Simpson the minstrel. His mix of British folk-pop, Delta blues sensibilities and a difficult (demanding?) vocal style have made him one of the few "singer-songwriter" types I ever listen to. While he does contribute many of the songs to this album, perhaps where Simpson has always excelled is at reinventing other people's songs. So it's a treat to find a number of British iconoclast John B. Spencer tunes gracing the album, along with Bob Franke's "Hard Love" and a surprising take on a Cat Steven's tune. Simpson has a special sensitivity to old songs and other people's work, and he can manage to be both respectful and totally innovative at the same time. It's what makes both this solo album and his work with Wu Man such a pleasure to hear. - CF

URBAN FOLK VOL. II: Self Destructive Fools

Urban Folk are Pete Morton, vocals and guitar; Roger Wilson, vocals, guitars both acoustic and electric, mandolin, and fiddle; and Simon Edwards, vocals and accordion. Their first recording was a nice cult item, included here as a 'bonus' CD, making for a sprawling two CD set that enlivens and broadens the trio format in English song.

With all three men taking turns sharing the vocal duties, each album is a feast of variations and subtleties. Take, for instance, the blistering treatment of "The Fox" sung by Pete Morton as Wilson and Edwards scramble after the tune over hill and dale. It's traditional acoustic English folk- punk, followed by Wilson's plaintive treatment of "Hey Joe" and "Delia." Edwards is a monster accordion player, hard on the box and fully engaged with his self-penned contributions.

"Volume II" shows continued growth and risk taking. There's some rousing tales here, from Wilson leading "The Belly Boys" to Edwards' lusty, leering version of "Cuckoo's Nest" which sounds absolutely menacing in his delivery. Edwards OWNS the song.

Deserving of special mention are the 'grand ballads' on Volumes I and II, "Lord Randall" and "Little Musgrave." These are supralative treatments sung with great emotion by Morton, who continues to astonish with his mastery of the ballad format. He is a rare, highly individual talent indeed.

The result? A magnum opus of the human condition. Urban Folk take an unflinching look at tradition combined with a modern's view of living. This is the sort of album that should, with any justice, launch Morton, Wilson, and Edwards into the firmament. An essential recording in every sense of the word that will easily stand the test of time; for the moment, we are lucky to have it here on Earth. - Lee Blackstone

Common Tongue
Topic Records UK

While many of you may have been introduced to the Waterson name via last year's remarkable pop album by Norma Waterson on Rykodisc, she is certainly no newcomer to the music scene. For decades she and her family have been singing the old songs of Britain, restoring a tradition and helping it grow. She and husband Martin Carthy have worked together for years, and now with daughter/fiddler Eliza Carthy, they have produced their second trio album. It is an album that is unabashedly "English." While none of them are strangers to their Celtic roots in Scotland or Ireland, they have chosen to intentionally pursue the English tradition on this outing, and have once again come away with a marvelous record of music that while holding true to the character of tradition certainly does not heel to it.

For many Americans raised on "Celtic" music, pure and tainted, the surprise will be not in the similarities but in the raw energy these songs exude. They are never flashy like an Irish jig or lushly romantic like a Celtic ballad. Rather they have what Martin calls "balls and clitzpah." The subjects are murder and sex, farming and death, war and pastoral pursuits. The music is basic: Martin's guitar and mandolin and Eliza's exquisite fiddling provide most of the backing for the solo, duet and trio vocals, with occasional additions of melodeon and dulcimer. The last tune brings in all the rest of the family; Lal, Mike, and Eleanor Waterson and Maria Gilhooley for a grand a capella finish in "Stars In My Crown." Common Tongue is a superb album of real roots music. - CF

BRIAN PETERS is well known on the British folk circuit, but has little fame here. This ought to change, I think. He's an ace accordionist, a fine songwriter and a fair singer. His latest album is with singer/guitarist GORDON TYRRELL under the title Clear The Road (Harbourtown, UK), and while it is a mix of their original tunes and traditional tunes, it has a solid folk-feel, mostly guitar and accordion with little over dubbing. Discover something special.

Lal Waterson & Oliver Knight Once In A Blue Moon
Rare it is to feel every second of an album is priceless -- but "Once In A Blue Moon" is no ordinary album. Continuing the grand tradition of Waterson family albums, Lal Waterson is here joined by her son Oliver Knight on guitar on songs that are as finely crafted as jewels. Lal is a deeply symbolic writer -- by turns melancholic, cryptic, funny, and direct -- there's just no rushing through this album; if the meaning of songs such as "Flight of the Pelican" or "Her White Gown" elude at first, repeated listening gathers them closer to the touch.
And that voice! by god, Lal sounds richer in tone and even world- weary. There is a fragility and strength behind her singing "So Strange Is Man" that positively aches: "Play me over again, hear in me a long lost friend. See in those healing hands, scream through me and / If you cannot understand: Dance with me then."
The instrumentation is always sparse: Oliver's guitar, with that haunting English blues resonance; some clarinet, sax, and vocals by Jo Freya; guest shots from Martin and Norma. Nothing distracts. "Midnight Feast" stands as a revelation, an absolute achievement. Lal's phrasing always makes you feel that you don't know quite what will happen in a song. "Midnight Feast" is a darkling creature, born of the type of weird gloom that Thompson casts over love. Listen, and you will hear a painting: "Aren't you just ravenous for a midnight feast. Old drooling moon, is shining down on us at the end of the street. Damned if I do my love, damned if I don't my sweet. Dare I declare this morning's love turned evening deep."
Stark and beautiful, "Once In A Blue Moon" emerges as one of the best albums of 1996. It has a mysticism to it that haunts and makes even silence sound different, until there is nothing to do but "Play me over again, hear in me a long lost friend..." Indeed. - LB

Rolling Home
Green Linnet

Theryyy're baaack! The world's only Molluccan/Celtic acoustic rock and reel band, and a real family to boot! Their previous records have floored me with their innocence and wonder, and they're simple sense of humor, both in the music they choose and the notes they play. If you have missed their earlier releases, let me explain the Deighton family to you. The accordion playing Dad is from England, with a side trip to Holland. Mom the guitarist is the daughter of a lap steel guitar player from an Indonesian kronkong band. The kids play percussion, flutes, fiddles, mandolins and they all sing. They play old Celtic reels. They bow old-timey American fiddle songs. They sing Richard Thompson's "Has He Got A Friend" a cappella, as weepy a song as you'll ever hear on the Nashville circuit. They do a wheezy, wonderful version of "I Can See Clearly Now," featuring father Dave's rather "acquired taste" vocals. In fact, they have gone overboard on the cover songs on this album. "Under The Boardwalk." "Save The Last Dance For Me." "I Forgot To Remember To Forget." But they might as well be new songs in their hands. This is no family novelty act. No one in this band is there for the sake of nepotism. From the youngest toddler to the young adults, talent abounds; talent without pretense. When they strike up "Leather Britches" those old Appalachian fiddlers would be proud. They can play a flute and bodhran "Clancy's Reel" are fiery and straight as any ceiligh band. Or they can do Johnny Nash's theme song a la kronkong. Or "Reuben's Train" with a screaming distorted electric guitar doing the responses to the call of the harmonica and squeeze-box. Whether they are cranking up the old '28 Chevy, or cruising in the '88 Lincoln, the Deightons play it right, true to no one's vision but their own. They are having too much fun, and they have enough room in the back seat for a couple of riders as they go Rolling Home.

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