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Laura Smyth & Ted Kemp Laura Smyth & Ted Kemp
Album: The Poacher's Fate
Label: Broken Token
Tracks: 13

Laura and Ted are The Real Deal, a shining example of what folk music is all about. For their unashamed stock-in-trade is pure no-nonsense English traditional folk, properly and capably researched and performed with absolute integrity, no truck with gimmicks and with no desire for grandstanding or calling attention to their own personalities at the expense of the songs. It feels as though they’ve just naturally and gradually amassed a repertoire from their travels, at the same time collecting instruments and unhurriedly learning to play them all the while honing and developing their interpretations of carefully selected material. The Poacher’s Fate turns out to be the duo’s second recorded artefact – their 2014 EP The Charcoal Black And The Bonny Grey was in itself a very assured stall-setter, and only duplicates the present CD’s tracklist in respect of an earlier (but still pretty assured!) rendition of the broadside Manchester Angel.

Laura and Ted met at library school, and Laura is now Director of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library (Cecil Sharp House) – hence the scholarly liner notes. Laura and Ted treat their sources with all due respect, yet their performances are enthused, life-affirming and far from po-faced. Laura in particular is a really fine singer, with a natural command of phrasing and an already very assured sense of flow and dynamics. Note especially the disc’s four a cappella selections – Laura solo on Cecilia (a spirited Sovay variant learnt from Sussex singer Gordon Hall) and Carrickmannon Lake, and with Ted on a stirring, animated Brave Benbow and on The Poacher’s Fate itself, which forms an ideal introduction to the duo’s artistry. The latter is one of the songs in this collection which emanate from Lancashire, in particular the Saddleworth “borderland” area close to Laura’s native home; another is the Ammon Wrigley dialect song The Brown Hare Of Whitebrook. Laura also contributes an excellent original, the ballad-styled Alizon Device, which tells of a young girl accused during the Pendle witch trials.

Other songs come from eastern England – Ted sings a version of Murder In The Red Barn notated by Sharp at a workhouse in Great Dunmow, Essex, while his thoughtfully remorseful version of The Wild Rover, learnt from a 1954 Peter Kennedy recording of a Suffolk source singer Alec Bloomfield, falls somewhere between the tempo of the usual table-thumper and the much slower, ruefully reflective “Sussex” version. In addition to the songs, there’s a pair of 3/2 hornpipes sourced from 18th century north-western tune-books, played on concertina and demonstrating a level of instrumental prowess and sensitivity beyond that of the part-time sessioneer. And the disc closes with a recitation, by Laura’s grandfather David, of a very short place rhyme from Co. Down.

In short, there’s much joy and satisfaction awaiting the listener in the sheer unadulterated honest purity of Laura and Ted’s performances, recorded equally honestly in no-frills fashion by Ian Carter (Stick In The Wheel) – much in the tradition of those legendary Bill Leader recordings of the early ’70s, I thought. Presentation is most attractive too, only lacking in one detail – track-by-track instrumental credits. (For the record, it’s Laura playing concertina and cello, whereas Ted plays guitar and banjo.) This is a truly refreshing straight-down-the-line folk album that can be repeatedly savoured and invite you to come back for more time and again.

David Kidman