SALLY BARKER – Maid In England (Hypertension HYP 14305)

sally bI’m not sure that, after a career spanning some 28 years, during which time she’s released six solo albums, two with The Poozies and been part of the Joni Mitchell Project, not to mention opening for Dylan and Robert Plant, being a contestant on The Voice wasn’t beneath her dignity. However, it has brought her exposure far beyond the folk circuit and, thank God, she didn’t win, so still has a healthy music career ahead of her. It has also served to prompt the re-issue of this, her sixth album. Originally released back in 2003, it was tragically overshadowed by her husband’s death and saw Barker largely retire from the scene for four years as she raised her children and took a Music Technology degree at de Montfort University. Although, after rejoining the band, she did appear on last The Poozies album, Yellow Like Sunshine, five years back, she’s not released anything under her own name for over a decade.

As well as boosting back catalogue sales, The Voice has also prompted this welcome reissue in the hope it will have wider exposure, especially with Barker now freer to promote it. Working with a line-up that includes Keith Buck, Paul Whyman, Phil Beer, Patsy Seddon and Sarah Alle, it balances the traditional influences of ‘Haul Away’ (a deportation ballad inspired by a book about female convicts sent to Australia), ‘The Ballad of Mary Rose’ (sung in the voice of one of Henry VIII’s sailors), and ‘The Farm’ (Debbie Cassell’s hauntingly desolate song of countryside plight on which Barker delivers a stunning unaccompanied intro) with the folk-rock sensibilities of ‘Fall From Grace’ (woman kills her deceitful lover), ‘Sirens’ (while acknowledging his courage, a firefighter’s wife has to leave because she’s unable to cope with the stress) and the rousing, celebratory title track in which Boudicea, Elizabeth I and Amy Johnson link verses.

Elsewhere, Steve Knightley’s ‘Captains’ (one of several songs referencing the sea) opens the album, the flute-laced ‘Comrades In Arms’ marries medieval notes and progressive folk in a part a capella lament of an Elizabeth wife whose husband returns from an Irish campaign a changed man, ‘Old Horses’ is a quietly reflective song of ageing and exhaustion given an added ache by Keith Buck’s pedal steel while, inspired by a couple who’d lost a child, ‘Bird’, with its madrigal lute, is a tender maternal fable about nurturing and letting go thematically complemented by ‘Sleep’s Descending’ gentle devotional lullaby to her two children.

In addition to making the original album available again, the reissue also, naturally, adds her two showpieces from the TV programme, both featuring her Joni Mitchell Project partner Glenn Hughes on keyboards, a folksy pop take on Olly Murs’ ‘Dear Darlin’’ and an impassioned version of the Bee Gees’ ‘To Love Somebody’ that rightly reduced Tom Jones to tears and will now doubtless prove the centrepiece of her live set for some time. Quite how far or how long the ripples from The Voice will spread remains to be seen, but even if, as with other contestants, it’s only a brief moment in the spotlight, Barker has nothing to prove, she’s been a star with a loyal following since she first stepped on a stage.

Mike Davies

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Artist website www.sallybarker.co.uk