SHIRLEY COLLINS –Archangel Hill (Domino Recording Company)

Archangel HillShirley Collins’ Archangel Hill is a beautiful album that’s an arboreal memory with deep roots that fuel regeneration of common folk song foliage. Put simply: As Shakespeare’s Caliban once said, “Be not afeard. This isle is full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not”. Now, to be certain, Shirley’s voice is weary with countless turnings of the so many seasons. But like any tree, its external rough touch simply protects soft circles that spin in weathered history, etched with humanity, drama, hope, and insight into (to quote Shirley herself): “the minds and mirrors of ordinary people”.

As said, Shirley’s unique vocal tone has dropped a notch or two. But, given that, this is a gorgeous folk album of traditional songs and a few original tunes sung by an artist who has earned the right to do whatever she so desires in any Eden in which she so desires to sing.

The first song, the traditional ‘Fare Thee Well, My Dearest Dear’, is folk music as it flows through an ancient crystalline English glade trout stream with SC’s vocal, former Oyster Band twelve-string guitar guy Ian Kearey, and a tragic watery tale of (of course!) lost love. The song is filled with patient beauty.

There are more traditional tunes. The lovely ‘Lost In A Wood’ continues with a simple voice, acoustic guitar, and a sublime melody. Then, ‘The Golden Glove’ finds its purity with voice, guitar, fiddle, percussion, and a slight electric guitar (Thank you, Pip Barnes!); although, to be quite honest, ‘Albion Sunrise’ guitar wiz Richard Thompson has no competition here about which to fret. And the clarity continues with the brief acoustic guitar plucked ‘Oakham Poachers’ that is eerie in its simplicity, but it’s also a broadside glance into “two noble young men” and their rebellious poaching, during which they (somehow) kill “a keeper” or two, and despite pleas for mercy (which, by the way, never work in a tragic ballad!) the “Two brothers” end their days “hanged together for the doing of one crime”. We Midwestern Anglophiles love this stuff!

To the initiate: Shirley Collins has been the “sweet primrose” and adventurous vocalist of 60’s and 70’s British folk song that bridged the trenched gulf between the Eden of Thomas Hardy’s rural idyll (sadly interrupted by the occasional tragedy of characters like Tess Durbeyfield, Michael Henchard, and “obscure” Jude Fawley!) and the post-World War I fallen dedicated memorials to the dead youth and the lost fertility of Maypole danced innocence. She recorded classic and ground-breaking albums like Folk Routes, New Routes (with Davy Graham!), Anthems Of Eden (with sister Dolly!), and No Roses and The Prospect Before Us (both with the Albion Country/Dance Band!).

In recent years, she has returned, thankfully, with three albums, Loadstar (her first record in thirty-eight years), Heart’s Ease, and now, Archangel Hill. And, as these albums spin with her aging years, they harken to the wise words of Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ode to the Roman god of boundaries, ‘Terminus’, which confidently professes, “As the bird trims her to the gale/I trim myself to the storm of time”, and “Obey the voice at eve obeyed at prime” because forever and a day, “every wave is charmed”.

That said, there are a few surprises. ‘June Apple’ showcases her Loadstar band – Pete Cooper (fiddle/mandolin), Dave Arthur (banjo/snare drum), and the before-mentioned Ian Kearey (guitar), with an Appalachian dance-stepped instrumental that is a nice nod to Shirley’s youthful trip with Alan Lomax to collect folk songs in America. And ‘High And Away’ is an original jaunty SC tune with words by Pip Barnes. Nice! Then, ‘Hand And Heart’ puts new words to a traditional tune that (with harpsichord grace!) evokes the exquisite vibe of ‘The Star Of The County Down’. And, in surprising juxtaposition, the song is a live recording from 1980 which finds SC with her still “sweet primrose” unique vocal timber. Nice, once again!

The album continues to spin with Eden’s soft circles. ‘The Captain With The Whiskers’ has a nice snare start and then blossoms into a mandolin-fueled waltzed melody. Then, the brief ‘How Far Is It To Bethlehem?’ is folk Christmas Evening purity personified. And the piano propelled ‘Hares On The Mountain’, which oozes a mystical vibe, is cut from magical 70’s folk tapestry cloth. As a flashback, ‘The Bonny Labouring Boy’ (which Shirley first recorded in 1959!), continues that woven weave, with a tragic story of defiant love. It’s a nice resurrection.

Oh my! ‘Swaggering Boney’ is another instrumental that recalls the fun of the Albion Band’s brilliant Battle Of The Field album.

The album ends with the dramatic ‘Archangel Hill’ (with “wind” credit!) which is a guitar and spoken word eulogy, with thunderstorms that rain upon those trenched post-World War I fallen dedicated memorials to the dead youth and the lost fertility of Maypole danced innocence. Put simply (once again!): Shirley Collins sings that eternal song. Indeed, just like Ralph Waldo Emerson found an aged “voice at eve obeyed at prime”, every song on Archangel Hill finds its grace in receding tidal tunes where “every wave is”, thankfully, still with that arboreal Eden memory, melodically “charmed”.

Bill Golembeski

Artist’s website:

‘High & Away’ – official video: