Topic Records celebrates its first 80 years

Vision & Revision: The First 80 Years of Topic Records

Vision & Revision: The First 80 Years of Topic Records is a deluxe double CD and double vinyl of the cream of contemporary British folk artists interpreting a song of their choice from Topic’s vast back catalogue (the only stipulation being that the song was at some time released on Topic). It includes newly recorded and never-before-released tracks by Martin Simpson, Richard Thompson, Lankum, Peggy Seeger, John Smith, Sam Lee, Martin Carthy, Olivia Chaney, Lisa O’Neill, Oysterband, Nancy Kerr, Chris Wood, Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker, Lisa Knapp, Kitty Macfarlane, Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys, Emily Portman & Rob Harbron, Rachael McShane & The Cartographers, Eliza Carthy & Olivia Chaney and The Oldham Tinkers. These artists have delved deep into Topic’s treasure chest to pull out all manner and variety of ballads and broadsides and breathed new life into them.

With its origins in the Workers’ Music Association, through the mid-20th century folk revival to the present day, Topic Records has established itself as not only the pre-eminent British folk music label, but one widely respected throughout the world. Topic has survived, grown and flourished – proof, if any were needed, that “grass roots” interest in traditional music, the artists and the label itself, has remained constant and strong. Topic has released some of the most influential folk recordings of modern times by a host of revered artists, from Anne Briggs to Peggy Seeger to June Tabor to Ewan MacColl and many, many more.

For 80 years, Topic Records has been a fervent and consistent champion of “the people’s music”. During that time, it has withstood wars, shortages, austerity, economic disaster, the vagaries of fashion, corporate onslaught and various cataclysmic shifts in the fortunes of the recording industry, to retain its proud and distinctively individual role as a beacon of integrity and true values. This fortitude has resulted in its unquestionable claim for being the oldest, surviving truly independent record label in the world.

“Folk music never goes away. You may not hear it, but it is always there, just over your cultural horizon. It lives in families, in communities, in the villages and towns and cities, and in the hearts of the people. Each generation takes what it needs and gives what it can to the tradition, each wave of newcomers turning another furrow, sowing new seeds. For eighty years, Topic Records has played a major role in this process, ensuring the old voices are still audible and creating a space for those that hear them to make new recordings of their own. Formats come and go, but like the music, Topic endures. Long may it do so.” – Billy Bragg

This 20-track double album comes in CD and vinyl gatefold formats, both housed in a special deluxe, debossed, silver foil-blocked sleeve. The vinyl issue is limited to 1000 copies only. A digital version of the album is also available.

Vision & Revision: The First 80 Years of Topic Records will be released on May 31st 2019.

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Label website: www.topicrecords.co.uk

JOSIENNE CLARKE & BEN WALKER – Overnight (Rough Trade)

overnightTheir fifth album together (although 2010’s One Light is Gone was credited to just Clarke) and the first for their new label sees the BBC2 Folk Award winners expanding their stylistic horizons ever further, embracing widescreen orchestration and touches of jazz.

Featuring ten originals and two covers, it opens with the self-penned, shimmering, acoustic guitar backed ‘Nine Times Along’, a number which will doubtless spark another wave of Sandy Denny references but which actually puts me more in mind of Lesley Duncan’s version of Elton John’s ‘Love Song’. This, in turn, is followed by the spare, slow swaying ‘Something Familiar’ where she sings “Reflections at sundown, can make me so sad, for there’s no way of keeping, the day we’ve just had”, capturing the album’s titular through line from dusk to dawn.

Following a mournful violin and cello drone introduction, plucked violin joins in for the dreamily slow, traditional-flavoured leaving song ‘Sweet The Sorrow’ featuring an acoustic solo from Walker before a funereal march tempo, rumbling ‘Dawn of the Dark’, co-penned by the duo, sees Clarke’s multi-tracked vocals soar in choral wings before a recorder solo (two tenors and descant, played by Clarke) towards the close. The darkness remains for the first of the covers, an early hours under the stars version of Gillian Welch’s ‘Dark Turn of Mind’ with a simple guitar accompaniment from Walker complemented by cello.

Not entirely an original, ‘Weep You No More Sad Fountains’ is actually an arrangement of a lute ayre by John Dowland, its renaissance colours brushed with skittering percussion like mice in the skirting board. Entering the hazy borders of folk and jazz, ‘The Light of His Lamp’ has a heady, late night ambience evoked by the skeletal piano notes and metronomic ticking in the background, cello swelling in the final stretch. This, in turn, leads to ‘Sleep’, a setting of a lyric by Ivor Gurney, a suitably otherworldly feel evoked by Clarke’s pure, soaring lieder vocal arrangement.

They hit the home stretch with another cover, one previously recorded by Nick Drake, one of their obvious influences, Jackson C Frank’s ‘Milk and Honey’ that, while faithful to the simple acoustic guitar arrangement, rather than the original’s traditional folk flavours has more of a 40s torch ballad feel with sax embellishment and a brief snatch of ‘‘Tis Autumn’, a number written by Henry Nemo and popularised by, among others, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald.

There’s a nod to a different era in ‘The Waning Crescent’, a chilled jazzy pop soul number straight out of the Warwick sings Bacharach songbook, complete with electric piano accompaniment (though Burt probably would not have gone for the percussive hisses). The dreamy strings-backed title track serves as the penultimate number, Clarke’s voice again soaring up the scales, before the shadows give way to dawn and, finally (returning to those Denny echoes, but also with hints of Carina Round), the equally sparse co-penned ‘Light Of Day’ with its tranquil cello and images of rebirth, drawing to a close in a way that conjures those slow, long, sun shimmering sequences in a Terence Davies film.

The pair have never sounded or felt so confident in their music and their performance, and the result is a sophisticated, soothing and reassuring listen that will take you from the gathering shadows into the first rays of day with the soft touch of the sandman.

Mike Davies

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‘The Waning Crescent’ – official video:

VARIOUS ARTISTS – Folk Awards 2015 (Proper PROPERFOLK16)

FolkAwards2015It’s that time again when the folk world looks back and hands out gongs to the great and good while conspiracy theories abound. Actually there have been far fewer of those this year; the detractors must have finally decided that the BBC keeps the names of the voters secret to avoid them being showered by gifts of Rolexes and vintage champagne in attempts to win approval. As if!

All in all, we’re looking back on a vintage year. I listen to more new music than the average punter and I’d heard only ten of the twenty-three tracks chosen to represent 2014 in this collection, so I’m clearly not trying hard enough. As ever the double-CD is well programmed by the four compilers – this is not just an audio catalogue: it has to stand as a listenable collection in its own right, which it does.

The opener is the sprightly ‘Moorlough Mary’ by Cara Dillon which breaks the ice nicely. Next is ‘It Would Not Be A Rose’ from Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker sounding rather more bitter taken out of the context of their album. You might expect The Will Pound Band to rock the rafters but the selection here is the rather down-beat ‘Jimmy Ward’s’ given a bluesy, slightly jazzy persona. That eases into Jez Lowe’s almost lullaby ‘The Pitmen Poets’ and a traditional Gaelic song from Cruinn. By now you’re settled back into your armchair and drifting, only to snapped back to wakefullness by Nancy Kerr’s ‘Never Ever Lay Them Down’ a super song from an album that has somehow managed to elude me so far.

The first set closes with The Young’Uns’ ‘John Hill’ with its borrowed tune and piano sounding almost like a hymn and second opens with the similarly powerful but restrained ‘Waking Dreams (Awake, Awake)’ from Martin & Eliza Carthy. Then, from out of nowhere, comes Naomi Bedford with ‘The Spider And The Wolf’, a song written by her partner Paul Simmonds and taken from her album A History Of Insolence. The other in-yer-face track here is ‘Bedlam’ by Stick In The Wheel and if you haven’t heard them yet you’re in for treat and you won’t be able to forget ‘I Saw The Dead’ by Martin Green with Becky Unthank in a hurry either.

Finally we have the four nominees for The Young Folk Award: Talisk, Wildwood Kin, Roseanne Reid and Cup O’Joe. Impossible to say who the winner will be but I’d like to hear more of Roseanne Reid.

Dai Jeffries