Various Artists - Shirley Inspired - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Various Artists - Shirley Inspired

by Jeff Penczak Rating:8 Release Date:2015-06-08

Shirley Collins MBE is, as Billy Bragg so eloquently and succinctly put it “no doubt one of England’s greatest cultural treasures”. The grand old dame of British folk music, Collins almost singlehandedly revived and preserved the English folk tradition and still lectures and travels extensively to bring this music to the people by and for whom it was originally created.

A series of well-deserved tributes are planned in honour of Shirley’s 80th birthday (July 5), and a Kickstarter campaign helped fund a film documentary based on her legendary 1959 trip to the US with Alan Lomax (The Ballad of Shirley Collins). One of the rewards offered to contributors was a downloadable 40-track tribute album, 34 of which were selected for a special Record Store Day vinyl edition. Now, Earth Recordings have issued a deluxe, 45-track 3xCD version, and like the lady herself, it is an astonishing, sometimes overwhelming piece of work.

What makes the tribute even more special is that it is not just a collection of the 'go-to' folk intelligentsia having yet another crack at Collins’ immense discography. Artists from various genres, backgrounds, and time periods (some household names, some you’ve never heard of) have generously donated their tracks, with all proceeds going to fund the documentary.

If you want to know what’s happening in the current folk scene, here is an astonishing, yet sometimes frustrating primer. I must admit I was unfamiliar with most of them (and the ones I did know of, I didn’t care for), but I’ve got a lot of shopping to do to catch up on this wonderful scene that never went away, but quietly continues to release stunning material. Like this tribute to one of the best of them all.

It’s impossible to namecheck everyone involved (but I'll try!), but there obviously have to be a few 'ringers' to attract the casual fan to a project like this – Collins’ aficionados will undoubtedly flock to the project no matter who was invited to participate, although they’re probably (understandably) peeved that this is the third version of the release that they’re being asked to purchase. Let’s just say that better be one hell of a documentary (still about a year away from its premiere).

So we’ll start by namechecking Will Oldham’s umpteenth variation on his Bonnie Prince Billy persona as Bitchin’ Bonnie Billy Bajas kicks things off with a haunting, organ-dominated ‘Pretty Saro’ from Collins’ 1959 debut, Sweet England. The Trembling Bells’ Lavinia Blackwall may be one of a handful of current vocalists who approaches the emotional breathlessness of Collins’ voice, and her/their enthusiastic ‘Richie’s Story’ will make you forget that The Incredible String Band backed Shirley on the original. It’s another essential listen, as is Meg Baird’s angelic ‘Locks and Bolts’.

Comedian Stewart Lee offers a surprisingly sedate ‘Polly on the Shore’ (no doubt reined in by his collaborator Stuart Estell on concertina, who pops up later with a jolly good, music hall-flavoured ‘Just as the Tide Was Flowing’, which, at over seven minutes, is a full six minutes longer than the original – and not a second is unnecessary). Another pleasant surprise is South African actor Johnny Flynn’s rambling troubadour take on ‘Rambleaway’, which surprisingly sounds like it was recorded on one of Shirley’s American jaunts back in 1959.

Unfortunately, things take a turn for the worse when ex-Sonic Youth string bender Lee Ranaldo focuses more on the noise emanating from his instrument than on the tale of ‘The Plains of Waterloo’, with the resulting nine minutes of annoying sludge thankfully rescued by the honourable Scottish traditionalist David McGuinness and his frequent Revenge of the Folksingers’ collaborator Alasdair Roberts’ piano-driven ‘A Blacksmith Courted’.

The kids will also want to line up for ex-Blur guitarist Graham Coxon’s lengthy (seven-plus minutes), bluesy, sparse ‘Cruel Mother’, although personally I thought his heart was in it more than his voice, which explains why Mr Albarn mic’d all those Blur tunes. Still, it’s reverential in its arrangement, closely following Collins’ original 1967 recording and recapturing her gloomy, heartbreaking delivery.

Angel Olsen’s whiskied voice whispers its way through a near a capella rendition of ‘The Blacksmith', reminiscent of the conspicuous-in-her-absence Marissa Nadler (or, for that matter, First Aid Kit or Lily & Madelaine or Rachel Sermanni or Traceyanne Campbell/Camera Obscura... but I digress), while Aussie Ela Stiles delivers the album’s first completely unnerving and oblique contribution, a mesmerising, three-part suite of ‘The Murder of Maria Marten’ that’s part drone, part a capella, part Gregorian chant, and as eerie as the tale commands. Her eponymous mini-album on Bedroom Suck seems well worth investigating if it sounds anything like this.

Another folk legend returns as Bonnie Dobson (author of the folk staple ‘Morning Dew’, Tim Rose claims be damned) teams up with the revamped Circulus (now trading as The Lords of Thyme) for a solid reading of ‘Hares on the Mountain’ that shows Bonnie’s 75-year old vocal chords have lost none of their lustre. I think it’s time for someone to assemble a similar tribute to the Canadian Queen of Folk, whose 2014 album, Take Me for a Walk in the Morning Dew, (following a more than 40-year absence) was tagged by the Guardian as “the comeback album of the year”.

Shirley loved to accompany herself on banjo, so it’s nice to hear it front-and-centre on Rachael Dadd’s ‘Polly Vaughan’. I still don’t 'get' whatever the hell it is that Josephine Foster is trying to do with her operatic flights of insanity, which sound like a cross between Diamanda Galas, Nina Hagen, and Klaus Nomi, but she’s at it again and brings the whole album to a, ahem, screeching halt.

Thankfully, modesty and decorum is restored with the wonderful fiddle and recorder of Laura Cannell, in collaboration with the equally talented and always reliable Owl Service, fronted by (the unrelated, I’m sure) Steven Collins. ‘Edi Beo’ is a welcome addition to both discographies, as is violinist Jackie Oates’ emotional interpretation of ‘Banks of the Bann.’ So far, (mostly) so wonderful. And that’s just disk one!

Alex and Lavinia from Trembling Bells team up with Harry and Katy from Muldoon’s Saloon (oops, Picnic) in the a capella harmonisers The Crying Lion (which also sounds like a pub they hang out at). In fact, ‘Shepherd’s Arise’ would go down a storm at the local public house with a couple of wee drams on a cold, damp Glaswegian e’ening. (And you'll forgive me if I missed that 'i' in the title the first three times I read it.)

Former Norwegian death metalists Ulver have softened their sound in recent years, and ‘Poor Murdered Woman’ is a perfect subject for their black hearts to cover, but this is a surprisingly smooth, focused, and enjoyable sing-along. Another about-face comes from legendary Leeds punker Sally Timms and her Mini-Mekons (unclear, but apparently Mekons Timms and Jon Langford along with country singer Robbie Fulks), who do such pleasant things to ‘Go From My Window’ that their album on Bloodshot should be investigated.

There aren’t many instrumentals here, although Shirley recorded loads, including a whole album with Davy Graham, and a Graham revivalist of sorts, C Joynes, rekindles memories of their legendary collaboration, Folk Roots, New Routes, with an enthralling interpretation of ‘It Was Pleasant and Delightful’, which, indeed, is both, while the ever so lovely Sharron Kraus delivers a whistful ‘Gilderoy (Heart’s Delight)’ - and what a heart-flutterer it is!

I am glad the producers were bold and confident enough to include some a capella tracks, a mainstay throughout Shirley’s career. Northampton’s Sophie Williams offers one of the best, with a room-quieting ‘Charlie’ that’s every bit as audacious and trembling as Shirley’s (minus her banjo accompaniment). Kudos also to Polly MacLean and her Slate Islands cohorts for another marvellous a capella track, ‘Proud Maisrie’. Very eerie (with nasty cawing crows in the background, no doubt an excited Islander.)

Orlando and Tom Furse are too experimental for their own good (or, my taste). These songs are treasures to respect and reimagine as needed, but they certainly don’t need a Resident-ial deconstruction. And the same goes for Belbury Poly (aka Jim Jupp)’s Frampton Comes Alive vocoder impersonation that buries ‘Cambridgeshire May Carol’ under several banks of synthesizers. The Devo tribute album awaits your phone call.

And while I’m in a generous mood, Eric Chenaux’s foggy, semi-ambient, semi-experimental, semi-coherent deflowering of ‘Just as the Tide Was Flowing’ reminded me how exciting Stuart Estell’s version was back on disk one. Then there’s Ruby’s ‘Bad Girl’, which takes a unique approach by trying to sound like it was recorded on the rudimentary devices Lomax and Collins carried around in the back of their car on that fateful journey to America back in 1959, but the ridiculous sound effects ultimately make it sound like it was recorded in a fun house in between rounds of technicolour yawns. Childish, and in these surroundings and under these circumstances, rather insulting. Sort of like a fart at a funeral.

Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, the sensational Norwegian songstress, Kari Jahnsen (aka, Farao) teams with Tunng for a mesmerising ‘Never Again’ that almost sounds like they’ve managed to reel in some whales for backing sound effects and vocals. Jack Sharp steps out from Wolf People to begin disk three with ‘Adieu to Old England’, which starts out promisingly enough with a gentle a capella reading of the first verse but then goes all batshit with noisy guitars and assorted sundries that remind me of why I was never a fan of their stuff to begin with. Some songs just need to remain reflective and melancholic and perhaps enjoyed within your own solitude, not pummelled into submission with a bunch of lager-louts from the local down the High Street.

Elsewhere, Adele has thankfully exhausted her 15 minutes of fame, but that hasn’t stopped Miz Stefani (Peikin) from having a go at the big, overblown soul thing which, unfortunately, has ‘My Bonnie Boy’ sounding like a demo for a wedding reception vocalist, and Marco Pirroni (yes, that Marco Perroni) proves you can take the boy out of punk, but you can’t take punk out of the boy, as he razor-blades his way through ‘Turpin Hero’. Jenn Vix tries to be heard above the din, but folk punk? On a Shirley Collins tribute? Nah.

Janis Ian (boy, wouldn’t she sound great on this?) once suggested that “sanity comes quietly to the well structured mind” (or words to that effect), and Welsh songbird Rosemary Lippard’s a capella rendering of ‘The Unquiet Grave’ restores sanity to this fairly well-structured tribute, halting the blood Perroni drew from our aching eardrums. Then there’s Appalachian banjo-picker Sam Greaves and the ‘Greenwood Laddie’, which effectively captures the excitement and wonder that Collins and Lomax experienced on their travels across the America South 55 years ago and which, for better or worse, ended up soundtracking the Coen brothers’ Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? 

Banjo (courtesy Alex Bondonno) also figures prominently in Elle Osborne’s too-long-by-half ‘Murder of Allen Bain’, but their tentative fumbling, start-and-stop staccato playing and quivering vocals combine for an unsteady listen. And, not to put too fine a point on it, but I’ve searched the world over (OK, so it was Shirley’s song-list on her website) and unless they missed it, I’m unaware that Shirley ever recorded this.

 I’ve enjoyed just about everything Rob St John has delivered, and his swaying ‘Bold Fisherman’ is another revelation of his enormous talent. Do yourself a favour and pick up a couple of his records. Next, Matt Valentine (MV) and Erika Elder (EE) prove that Shirley was onto something when she got into a studio, recorded a song in a couple of minutes and knew when to say when.

Sadly, the experimental duo ramble aimlessly for over nine minutes, and I lost the plot of something they refer to as ‘T-Devil’ even earlier than they did. It’s a live recording (the only one here), so maybe that explains the tendency to stre-e-e-tch out and jam, man, but it doesn’t excuse it. Perhaps this is another of those 'ringers' I spoke about nearly 10 minutes ago, but I don’t care if they do have about 2,375 albums out, they could use a little quality control and not release everything they record. Who do they think they are, Acid Mothers Temple?

We’re in the home stretch, and it’s time for one of the Susans from the Band of same, Susan Stenger. Unlike other artists herein who’ve remained truer to their own past lives and careers than Ms Collins’, Stenger eschews her noisy neighbours for a melancholic, peaceful, meditative medley of ‘Barbara Allen’ and ‘Idumea’ that’s a near-religious experience, thanks to her pipe-organ sounding instrumental rendition in keeping with the tradition of the classical avant garde composers she’s collaborated with, and wouldn’t be out of place on a LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, Bach, or Mozart recording.

On a Shirley Collins tribute? Perhaps… Perhaps not. But after nearly three-and-a-half hours of sometimes sublime, occasionally excruciating interpretations and some of Shirley’s massive discography of over 200 songs across over three dozen albums, it is a restorative (and restful) way to end an evening’s entertainment.

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