It can’t have escaped your notice that Topic Records is celebrating its 80th birthday this year. We’ve already had selected deluxe reissues of important albums but how can you really celebrate a catalogue as vast as this? Vision & Revision, subtitled The First 80 Years Of Topic Records, is the solution. Twenty artists, mostly from the younger generation, perform a song that was released on a Topic record some time in the last eight decades. I must congratulate Glen Johnson and Michael Mastrangelo who curated the set but I’m intrigued to know how they set about their task. Did they select twenty songs and parcel them out – surely not? So they must have picked twenty performers and turned them loose on the archives. Each one has a story and you’ll get dizzy following the cross-references.
The first disc opens with one of the old stagers, Martin Simpson, who sings ‘Beaulampkin’ which appeared on his first album. Martin didn’t join Topic until his third record but he learned the song from Hedy West’s Ballads. Of course, Sam Kelly learned ‘Shawnee Town’ from Martin and the baton moves on again. Another veteran is Martin Carthy who cites Sam Larner for ‘Napoleon’s Dream’. Martin heard Sam perform when he was just a teenager and Emily Portman gives Waterson:Carthy as the source of ‘The Bay Of Biscay’ – fifty years separate the two inspirations.
Martin is mentioned again by Chris Wood as the source of ‘Fable Of The Wings’, the Keith Christmas song adapted by Brass Monkey. It’s an unexpected choice and Chris takes it back to something like the guitar original. Anne Briggs is mentioned more than once and Kitty Macfarlane goes as far as singing ‘Go Your Way’ while Olivia Chaney borrows ‘Polly Vaughan’ from Hazards Of Love. Nancy Kerr namechecks June Tabor, Oysterband tackle Nic Jones’ ‘Seven Gypsies’ – an excellent reading of the song – and Peggy Seeger goes to Mike Waterson leaving The Oldham Tinkers to sing ‘Dirty Old Town’.
Another unexpected treat is Richard Thompson’s ‘The Light Bob’s Lassie’, a version of ‘Katie Cruel’ and there are two voices I haven’t heard before. The first is Irish singer Lisa O’Neill who sings ‘As I Roved Out’ with a mighty voice that takes absolutely no prisoners. The second is Lankum – please don’t ask me why I haven’t heard them before – whose lengthy take on ‘The Sea Captain’ closes the second disc.
There’s probably a great pub game to be had from matching twenty singers to twenty songs from the Topic catalogue but this is the official version. Sadly I won’t be around to hear what they select for the second eighty years.
Rosie Hood’s debut solo album impresses on so many levels. Firstly, there’s her voice – a model of power and clarity; secondly there is the restraint of the accompaniments, even allowing for the presence of a string trio and Emma Smith’s mighty double bass and, finally, the template for the record. The Beautiful & The Actual is a quotation from Alfred Williams’ Folk Songs Of The Upper Thames and if you know anything about Williams you’ll know that he collected only words, never tunes, on the grounds that no-one would want to sing these songs again.
Many of Williams’ songs are unusual variants and I suspect that some of them, ‘Baker’s Oven’ for example, are unique. They provide a rich source of material for both singers and composers which is where Rosie comes in. She isn’t the first person to arrange Williams’ songs but probably the first to dedicate almost a whole album to him. She opens with ‘Lover’s Ghost’ matched with the tune of Packie Byrne’s version of ‘Holland Handkerchief’. This is an undeniably spooky tale made more so by its apparent simplicity. Having chilled your blood, Rosie injects some humour with a song of her own, ‘Furlong Of Flight’ concerning the unlikely story of an 11th century monk who constructed a pair of wings and flew down Malmesbury High Street before his crash landing.
‘William’s Sweetheart’ is a reworking of ‘William Taylor’ and ‘Lord Lovel’ borrows Peter Bellamy’s tune. ‘The Little Blind Girl’ is an unpublished text with a tune by Rosie who also wrote new melodies for variants of ‘The Red Herring’ and ‘The Cruel Mother’. Of the contemporary songs two, placed side by side, stand out. ‘Adrift, Adrift’ is Rosie’s song about refugees lost in the Mediterranean and John Archbold’s ‘The Hills Of Kandahar’ looks at the other end of the ongoing story, telling of a soldier killed by an IED in Afghanistan.
Supporting musicians include co-producer Tom A Wright, Ollie King, Jefferson Hamer and Emily Portman but Rosie’s voice dominates as it should with traditional music. The Beautiful & The Actual is high on my list of albums of the year.
A round-up of EPs and singles that have come our way
JAKE AARON is a singer-songwriter from London with a distinctive spiky guitar style and a youthful voice and outlook that seem at odds with the grey in his hair. I’m still puzzling over the first two songs on his eponymous EP. ‘1790’ is clearly very personal and I suspect that only one other person fully understands it. ‘Record Player’ is equally deep – “I’m not a rock, I’m a record player” seems to be the key line. I’m not rigid, I’m open to influence? I don’t know. ‘High Rolling’ is an instrumental, not pretty but hypnotic, and then comes possibly the best song in the set, ‘Dalston Kingsland’. Again, it’s a young man’s song as is the final ‘Constitution Blues’. Jake reminds me of all sorts of people but I can’t think who they are but I do know he is a name to watch. www.jakeaaron.com
Raising The Fires, the debut album from HEG & THE WOLF CHORUS, will be with us next year but here’s our first taste, a single containing two versions of ‘The White Witch’. The “standard” version, if that’s the correct term, begins gently with Heg’s voice and piano before building up with echoey drums and strings to a big finish. The second version, The Jillk Remix starts with strange percussion and electronics with just the bare skeleton of the song remaining and Heg’s voice manipulated to a stutter. If the remix doesn’t appear on the album you’ll wish you’d bought this. Excellent. www.hegandthewolfchorus.com
‘Seed Stitch’ is the single taken from Coracle, the most recent album from EMILY PORTMAN. Like so many of Emily’s it’s wrapped up in myth and memory and metaphor. Ostensibly about knitting it is a song of loss, of breakdown and new beginnings. Initially I thought it was about the loss of virginity and innocence but now I’m not so sure. Paired with it is ‘Nightjar’ another complex song full of imagery which often goes unexplained and one really weird line which will continue to haunt you. www.emilyportman.co.uk
THE DEADLY WINTERS are a five-piece band from Edinburgh who are beginning to make a name for themselves. Table In The Corner is their latest EP; the title track being the story of a piece of pub furniture that no-one ever uses because … well, that’s the story and we’re not privy to the answer to the unspoken question. ‘Liars, Liars, Liars’ is the tale of a man on the run pursued by stories that make him out to be much worse than he is – it’s a very clever song. ‘Sam Did Run’ tells of a war hero pursued by bullets which leads nicely into ‘Gone To Ground’. The band has a sound that is part folk-rock, part Americana and a fine songwriter in Christopher Blair. We should hear more of them.
Blow Out The Moon is a five track EP from The Furrow Collective: Alasdair Roberts, Emily Portman, Lucy Farrell and Rachel Newton. All the tracks are traditional except for the tune of the title track which was written by Lucy for a children’s verse found in a book called Far, Far Away and it goes without saying that it isn’t anywhere near long enough.
It has to be said that The Furrow Collective don’t always pick the jolliest material and, indeed, the centrepiece of this record is Rachel’s version of ‘The Unquiet Grave’. There is, however, a sprightliness about this set that isn’t the band’s rather stately debut album, At Our Next Meeting. Lucy zips through ‘Poor Old Horse’ in under two minutes and Emily gives us a positively bouncy ‘Shule Agra’.
Alasdair can hold an audience spellbound with just his voice and an old ballad but here he contributes a bit of Irish gentleness in ‘Lament To The Moon’ from the singing of the late Packie Manus Byrne. The final track combines ‘Oh To Be In My Bed And Happit’ led by Alasdair and ‘Blow Out The Moon’ to send us happily to bed. Blow Out The Moon is a splendid set which whets the appetite for more.
I’ve always been a fan of Emily Portman’s songwriting; less so in the past of her performances. Hearing her recently with the reunited Devil’s Interval, however, I was struck by the impact that years of writing, playing and singing, leadership of her trio (Lucy Farrell and Rachel Newton, who are the bedrock of this album), not to mention motherhood have had on her.
I still think that Emily is at her best when she is working from traditional themes so my favourite tracks reflect that. ‘Brink Of June’ is a May song and only the title might stop you from researching the traditional source. ‘Borrowed And Blue’ holds up a mirror to ‘The Cruel Mother’ with plays on the words “buried” and “bridal/bridle”. Like many other songs in this set it seems preoccupied with the process of motherhood, with an almost Catholic sense of guilt. I’m certain that Emily is happy with her role but you can read a lot into her words.
Call me weird but ‘Seed Stitch’ reads like an allegory for the loss of virginity, something that is irreplaceable, while ‘Dotterine’, derived from an Estonian fairy-tale, mythologizes the act of giving birth while omitting the unhappy ending of the source story. As ever, many of Emily’s songs seem to come from a mysterious other world. There is a simple explanation behind ‘Darkening Bell’ for example but don’t let that put you off and ‘Nightjar’ embodies many ideas although we’re also talking about motherhood again.
Coracle isn’t exactly an easy album but it is a very powerful one and it will only serve to reinforce Emily’s reputation as one of the country’s best young songwriters.
Glorious…there’s no other word to describe it. Opening with every folk fans favourite band of ragamuffins Bellowhead and “Roll The Woodpile Down” this 3 CD compilation of the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards positively blasts forth heralding the achievements of all concerned. We in the folk world have a lot to be grateful for and the inclusion of (amongst others) Hannah James & Sam Sweeney, Gilmore & Roberts and Kathryn Tickell show how they can ‘acoustically’ kick butt along with ‘rock’ music’s finest. It brings a beaming smile to my face to feel privileged as I do that my enjoyment of this much maligned genre really can give every other form of music a run for its money and that recording’s like this will hopefully inspire the next generation to pick up the baton and run with it. Mind you…before I sign off (heartily recommending that you purchase a copy of the album) I’d like to credit Smooth Operations Jon Lewis on whose shoulders rest the unenviable task of selecting this compilation as it must have been an agonising decision choosing only one track from each of the featured artists plus the bonus ten track CD of the Young Folk Award contenders. Finally, Proper Music and the production team led by the legendary Brian Ledgard have to be congratulated for their support each year in allowing ‘our’ music such a fantastic shop window (and not a hint of Mary Portas in sight) in which to showcase such astonishing talent.