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Shirley Collins and the Albion Country Band Shirley Collins and the Albion Country Band
Album: No Roses
Label: Talking Elephant Records
Tracks: 9

Whatever it was Ashley Hutchings was imbibing in 1971 or thereabouts, I'd like a barrel please! From his participation in “Liege and Leaf” with Fairport Convention in 1969, to the early Steeleye Span albums, and the tremendous “Morris On” in 1972, Hutchings was associated with the most innovative and energised re-imaginings of the English folk tradition. Also in 1971, came the first appearance of the Albion Country Band, providing backing for Shirley Collins (Hutchings' then wife) on this classic collection of updated folk tunes. The ubiquitous Hutchings plays on all tracks on this album, with a host of stars from the folk-rock era, including most of the Liege and Lief Fairport, John Kirkpatrick, elements of The Young Tradition, Steeleye Span, The Watersons, Mighty Baby, Shirley's sister Dolly, and even sessioneer Tim Renwick; but the songs are dominated by Shirley Collins whose voice changes with the demands of the songs throughout, without ever losing its very individual timbre.

Opener “Claudy Banks”, a favourite of Collins' East Sussex compatriots The Coppers, shows her voice off at perhaps its most idiosyncratic, clearly accented, and slightly wavering like the ears of a cornfield in the summer breeze. “The Little Gipsy Girl” bounces along on Hutchings' bass and Tony Hall's melodeon, with Dave Bland's hammered dulcimer adding an almost fairground element during the break.

“Banks of the Bann” is an old Irish song, from which the tune was used to set the hymn “Lord of All Hopefulness, Lord of All Joy”. Eschewing drums, the band here comprises Hutchings, Simon Nichol and Richard Thompson, John Kirkpatrick and Dolly Collins in piano. It's a lovely piece, Collins' plaintive voice providing an oddly fitting characterisation of an Irish man about town.

“Murder of Maria Marten” is one of the show-pieces of the album. An 8-piece band including most of Fairport (Nicol, Thompson and Tim Renwick all feature on electric guitar), and Francis Baines on Hurdy Gurdy, this penny dreadful murder ballad (based on the infamous Red Barn murder), veers between recognisable Fairport material, driven along by Dave Mattacks and Hutchings, and a much more eerie version of the same tune, with Collins backed only by the hurdy gurdy, her vocals drenched in reverb. The alternating modes create a real sense of drama to the song, with Nic Jones providing backing vocals and fiddle for the 3rd part of the performance, before the hurdy gurdy again takes the lead.

“Van Diemen's Land” is a sumptuous ramble through a tale of transportation, driven by Mighty Baby's Ian Whiteman's piano and Hutchings' bass. The song also features Northumbrian small pipes from Colin Ross, and Alan Ross on ophicleide, which is a kind of combination of tuba and bassoon. The instrumentation highlights Hutchings' genius for bringing together truly unlikely sounds.

“Just as the Tide Was A-Flowing” is a handed-down song from Collins' Aunt Grace Winborn, of Hastings, whilst “The White Hare” is a much more polite song than Fairport's “Bonny Black Hare” also being recorded at around the same time for “Angel Delight”. “Hal-an-Tow” could well have appeared on “Morris On”, and features melodeon, dulcimer and serpent. The chorus of “summer is icumen in and winter is a-gone” is of course quintessentially English, and a version of this May-song features in the Wickerman (1973) which kind of brought all this research and reinvention of English folk traditions to its apogee. The closing “Poor Murdered Woman” is a strange documentary, as Collins notes in her sleeve notes, “the song is so straightforwardly told that its compassion and dignity might escape you, were it not for its noble tone”.

The remastered version of “No Roses” is the latest in Talking Elephant Records' re-releases of Hutchings-related recordings, and is all the more timely, given Collins' recent return to the stage. It sits proudly alongside the key recordings mentioned at the start of this review, and is well worth searching out as a key document of the English folk revival.

Harry Thomson