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Martin SimpsonMartin Simpson
Album: Trials & Tribulations
Label: Topic
Tracks: 13+6

The multi-award-winning guitarist, singer, songwriter, banjo player extraordinaire has now got 20 solo albums under his belt, spanning 40 years, not to mention numerous collaborations with fellow-musicians from all manner of cultures as well as the more obvious folk and blues camps. Trails And Tribulations is his first studio album in four years, and a natural followup to 2013’s landmark set Vagrant Stanzas. If anything, it’s an even more rounded demonstration of the breadth of Martin’s repertoire – previous albums have majored variously (although not exclusively) on individual areas such as, say, American tradition, blues or English tradition, but Trails And Tribulations comfortably takes in all bases, and – as is now customary – Martin throws in a few of his own songs too: among them, Maps exhibits a potent sense of place within time; Ridgeway expresses our relationship with nature, and Thomas Drew gives a new perspective on the John Hardy legend (from the perspective of Hardy’s victim). Best among the traditional pieces are an eerie Reynardine (with sublimely slippery, slithery counterpoint to Martin’s intricate guitar provided by Ben Nicholls’ bass) and a nifty, Appalachian-jazz-flavoured, banjo-accompanied take on Rufford Park Poachers (featuring Nancy Kerr on fiddle), while the blues standard St. James Hospital is given a fresh slant by being treated more akin to a traditional ballad from this side of the pond. Undisputed standout among the album’s covers is the wonderful, charismatic if slightly sinister Emily Portman song Bones And Feathers (on which Martin’s daughter Molly contributes a backing vocal). But the Jackson C. Frank staple Blues Run The Game is no routine runthrough either (on checking back, I was surprised to find Martin hadn’t previously recorded this classic), and Alex Atterson’s setting of Charles Causley‘s evocative A Ballad For Katherine Of Aragon suits Martin’s more reflective style well.

I might also mention that the limited-edition “deluxe” CD version of this sublime collection is supplemented by a six-track bonus disc which includes four utterly essential tracks which range equally widely across Martin’s proudly extensive musical comfort zone: Dick Connette’s loving portrait of the traditional North Carolina ballad singer Dillard Chandler is given an attractive, bustling ensemble setting that gives something of the flavour of old-time gatherings, while Joshua Gone Barbados is a sprightly revisit of the Eric Von Schmidt song made famous by Tom Rush but first essayed by Martin on his 1981 LP Special Agent. Willie O’ Winsbury is a solo resonator instrumental treatment that feels more complete than its avowed “work-in-progress” status implies, and Heartbreak Hotel is a sturdy reinterpretation that embodies something of the rebel essence of the original (and I was surprised to find it’s only been in Martin’s set since 2013). The bonus disc’s final cut, a radio edit of Blues Run The Game, is nobbut a makeweight however, so I feel sure all the important material could’ve fitted onto just one 70-minute CD with the main album. But that’s my only caveat, for the special-edition is the one to have for those superb extra tracks. Two of them are solo (or doubletracked) renditions, whereas Dillard Chandler uses the trusty musicians whose presence variously graces half of the main disc’s tracks – including among the ranks those already mentioned plus Andy Cutting, John Smith, Helen Bell and Toby Kearney. In this context, the extra instrumentation is exceedingly well integrated with Martin’s own predictedly brilliant musicianship courtesy of expert producer Andy Bell, and leads me to confirm an observation I’ve made more than once of late, whereby I’ve occasionally found the experience of Martin’s live performances – jaw-dropping virtuosity and close-up intensity notwithstanding – somehow a touch less consistently satisfying than listening more intently and repeatedly to his studio albums.

But I still permanently marvel at Martin’s artistry, in whatever context – how on earth does he always sound so damnably relaxed and his playing come across as so utterly effortless? This new album release compares extremely favourably with its illustrious predecessors; in fact I’d even say it’s marked by an extra degree of thoughtfulness in the arrangements and the intricacy of the self-embellishments. Either way it’s magnificent!

David Kidman