Song of the Day, September 22: A Blind Step Away by French, Frith, Kaiser, Thompson

FFKTLLLL2Today’s song is A Blind Step Away by (John) French, (Fred) Frith, (Henry) Kaiser, (Richard) Thompson. These four innovative, collaborative musicians pooled their diverse talents simultaneously challenging one another and creating a wonderful middle ground in the universe of their broad — sometimes eccentric — tastes. This track is a dark highlight, a classic Thompson look at doomed romance using Blind Man’s Bluff as its central metaphor. With wonderful, wordless harmonies from the whole group and a meditative lead from Thompson, it’s a spare but complex gem.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Album of the Week, September 21: 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields

MagneticFieldsThe-69LoveSongsStephin Merritt has never lacked musical ambition. Born and raised near Boston, he had a high school band called the Zinnias with friend and drummer Claudian Gonson. For a studio project, he created Buffalo Rome (also with Gonson), which evolved into the Magnetic Fields. Dissatisfied with his own voice, Merritt eventually recruited Susan Anway to sing his songs. With Merritt playing almost everything, this duo recorded two solid albums in the early 90s, featuring her haunting vocals over diverse musical soundscapes mostly played on intentionally cheap synths. A sort of wall-of-lo-fi electro-pop, the discs bristled with Merritt’s stunning wordplay and clear sense of musical styles and history. Gonson and cellist Sam Davol appear on both discs. Anway moved away and Merritt recorded his own vocals on the thematic Charm of the Highway Strip. While his quirky baritone was quite different from Anway’s vocals, it served the material well. After two more albums, the Magnetic Fields were really a band: Merritt, Gonson, Davol and guitarist John Woo. For his first project with the formalized group, Merritt decided to do something big.

Title 69 Love Songs
Act The Magnetic Fields
Label Merge Producer Stephin Merritt
Release September 7, 1999 U.S. Chart n/c U.K. Chart n/c
Tracks Disc One Disc Two Disc Three
  1. Absolutely Cuckoo
  2. I Don’t Believe In the Sun
  3. All My Little Words
  4. A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off
  5. Reno Dakota
  6. I Don’t Want to Get Over You
  7. Come Back From San Francisco
  8. The Luckiest Guy On the Lower East Side
  9. Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits
  10. The Cactus Where Your Heart Should Be
  11. I Think I Need A New Heart
  12. The Book of Love
  13. Fido, Your Leash Is Too Long
  14. How Fucking Romantic
  15. The One You Really Love
  16. Punk Love
  17. Parades Go By
  18. Boa Constrictor
  19. A Pretty Girl Is Like…
  20. My Sentimental Melody
  21. Nothing Matters When We’re Dancing
  22. Sweet-Lovin’ Man
  23. The Things We Did and Didn’t Do
  1. Roses
  2. Love Is Like Jazz
  3. When My Boy Walks Down the Street
  4. Time Enough For Rocking When We’re Old
  5. Very Funny
  6. Grand Canyon
  7. No One Will Ever Love You
  8. If You Don’t Cry
  9. You’re My Only Home
  10. (Crazy For You But) Not That Crazy
  11. My Only Friend
  12. Promises of Eternity
  13. World Love
  14. Washington, D.C.
  15. Long-Forgotten Fairytale
  16. Kiss Me Like You Mean It
  17. Papa Was A Rodeo
  18. Epitaph For My Heart
  19. Asleep and Dreaming
  20. The Sun Goes Down and the World Goes Dancing
  21. The Way You Say Good-Night
  22. Abigail, Belle of Kilronan
  23. I Shatter
  1. Underwear
  2. It’s A Crime
  3. Busby Berkeley Dreams
  4. I’m Sorry I Love You
  5. Acoustic Guitar
  6. The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure
  7. Love In the Shadows
  8. Bitter Tears
  9. Wi’ Nae Wee Bairn Ye’ll Me Beget
  10. Yeah! Oh, Yeah!
  11. Experimental Music Love
  12. Meaningless
  13. Love Is Like A Bottle of Gin
  14. Queen of the Savages
  15. Blue You
  16. I Can’t Touch You Anymore
  17. Two Kinds of People
  18. How to Say Goodbye
  19. The Night You Can’t Remember
  20. For We Are the King of the Boudoir
  21. Strange Eyes
  22. Xylophone Track
  23. Zebra

Initially planned as a set of 100 songs that could be performed as a revue with varying vocalists, Merritt scaled the project back just a bit. Settling on 69 songs, he brought in some additional help and recorded his masterpiece. Perhaps the best introduction to this epic masterpiece is a quote from the author:

69 Love Songs is not remotely an album about love. It’s an album about love songs, which are very far away from anything to do with love.

That’s a perfect analysis. Merritt has always reveled in dissecting, imploding, and subverting familiar musical forms and tropes. Romping through a whole batch of them, loosely joined by the love song theme, shows off the breadth of his talent and the fun that can be had with a great musical idea. The songs range from Abigail, Belle of Kilronan to Zebra (strangely missing only a “J” song to have a complete alphabet) and from 29 seconds to just over five minutes in length.

Merritt provides 45 lead vocals plus two duets, one with Gonson and another with the charming Shirley Simms (who would later become an offical band member). Longtime friend and collaborator ld beghtol and irony champion Dudley Klute (who also perform with Merritt as the Three Terrors) each pitch in leads for six tracks, as do Gonson and Simms. This diversity of vocal talent lets Merritt really match the song to the singer, often in subversive and unexpected ways.

A track-by-track analysis (like I usually provide for Albums of the Week) would be too exhausting for both writer and reader. Suffice it to say that while there is a bit of inevitable filler (note the tracks that mention specific musical forms), the whole project is amazingly consistent and cohesive. Any set that includes a spot-on trad-folk parody (Wi’ Nae Wee Bairn Ye’ll Me Beget), a darkly haunting kiss-off (No One Will Ever Love You), a sprightly murder ballad about a famous linguist (The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure), and an ABBA-worthy pop epic (Sweet-Lovin’ Man) is worth the time and effort. That analysis barely scratches the surface. (I’ve written up Songs of the Day for most of my favorites, available through the links in the track list above.)

It’s easy to label an album like this sprawling, epic, massive, or daunting. All of those terms apply to some extent. More importantly, however, it’s visionary, smart, clever, fun, compelling, and satisfying. Expertly sequenced, lovingly played, and dizzyingly diverse, 69 Love Songs is like nothing else. It’s also magnificent. The three discs are available separately, but not owning the whole set is simply a crime. (There’s a box set version which features an extended conversation about the songs between Merritt and longtime friend Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snickett. It’s worth the extra couple of bucks.)

Merritt manages to be ringmaster, Svengali, and bandleader while still being very much a part of a larger whole. Anyone who appreciates smart writing, music with a sense of history AND fun, and a group of players at their best should invest in this wonderful set.

FURTHER LISTENING: It’s hard to keep track of Stephin Merritt’s musical projects. Besides his ten discs as leader of the Magnetic Fields, he has four other musical identities with recordings available. As the 6ths, he’s recorded two albums with a wide array of vocalists from all over the indie music world, each singing one track. That “group’s” Wasp’s Nests is a masterpiece of a very different flavor but almost as compelling as 69 Love Songs. With Gonson and keyboardist Christopher Ewen, he is part of the much more democratic electro-pop group Future Bible Heroes. Their material is a lot of fun and features some smart playing. The best of their albums is Eternal Youth. The aptly named Gothic Archies are another side project, with smaller output; it’s good stuff, but not as compelling. Merritt also records under his own name, especially soundtrack work.

Of the Magnetic Fields albums, three others stand out. Distant Plastic Trees, the debut with Anway, is less fully-formed and features some weaker experiments, but it also includes some of Merritt’s most beautiful melodies. The cheap-synth folk feel is uniquely compelling. The Charm of the Highway Strip is a strong concept disc with an almost alt-country feel. i, the first in no-synths trilogy, is the strongest of the post-69 material. All of the albums are worthwhile (with the overlong Get Lost and the overwrought concept of Distortion coming closest to real stumbles) and fans of Merritt’s distinctive musical vision can find real gems on every one.

Billboard #1s for the Week Ending September 22, 1984

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 Missing You John Waite 1
R & B Caribbean Queen (No More Love On the Run) Billy Ocean 3
Country Let’s Chase Each Other Around the Room Merle Haggard 1
Adult Contemporary Drive The Cars 1
Rock On the Dark Side John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band 1
Album Purple Rain Prince and the Revolution 8

NewEdCoolThis week sees  a boy band that launched many careers debut with their first big hit. Producer and songwriter Maurice Starr, frustrated with his lack of success as a singer, assembled five teens (Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, Bobby Brown,  Ronald DeVoe, and Ralph Tresvant) into the group New Edition. Their first single, Candy Girl, topped the R&B chart but just missed the pop Top 40. This week their fourth single, Cool It Now, enters the Hot 100 at #84. In its sixth week it became their first Top 40 hit; it eventually peaked at #4 and also became their second R&B chart-topper.

After they logged a few smaller hits, Brown left for a successful solo career, replaced by Johnny Gill. After a couple of hits from the talented team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the group broke up in 1990. Gill and Tresvant had some solo  success and the remaining three hit it fairly big as Bell Biv DeVoe. In 1996, all six reunited for another successful run on the charts, including their biggest hit, 1996’s Hit Me Off [#3, #1 R&B (three weeks)].

Song of the Day, September 19: Lookin’ For the Time (Working Girl) by Nanci Griffith

NanciLookinToday’s song is Nanci Griffith’s Lookin’ For the Time (Working Girl). It’s a standout track on her delightful 1986 album, Last of the True Believers. A fun romp, it features the singer channeling a working girl impatient with the flimsy advances of an uncertain suitor. Delivered at a breakneck pace, it captures her frustration perfectly. Griffith also mixes a wonderful growl into her vocals, lending a nice edge to the delivery.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, September 18: Guns of Brixton by the Clash

The Clash The Guns Of BrixtonToday’s song is Guns of Brixton. The track is Paul Simonon’s finest contribution to the Clash’s musical catalog and a highlight of their seminal London Calling. The band’s bassist, Simonon had taught himself guitar and worked hard to create a song that would get him writing credit on the album. It was his first such credit and first lead vocal and set the bar for his later efforts very high indeed.

A surging, menacing track about urban unrest, it fits perfectly in the themes of the overall album. With an almost Jamaican feel to the bass line, it broods nicely as Simonon spits out his observations with the perfect mix of casual sneer, bold swagger, and a deeper unease.

When they kick at your front door
How you gonna come?
With your hands on your head
Or on the trigger of your gun?

You can crush us
You can bruise us
And even shoot us
But oh, the guns of Brixton

Enjoy this potent song today.

A Richard Thompson Chronology: All the Albums 1968 – 2013

RTChronElectricRTChronFCAs I was drafting an overview of two Richard Thompson albums for an upcoming Album of the Week feature, I pondered my strategy for writing the FURTHER LISTENING section at the end of the post. With a career spanning five decades, RT has a large, rich catalog; as a look at one of my favorite performers, simply noting a title or two didn’t seem feasible.

Instead, here is a single-feature overview of the many albums credited to – or significantly featuring – the incomparable Richard Thompson.

A Note on Grading: The grades assigned to each album are (of course) my personal estimates of how each work stacks up in RT’s catalog. Frankly, other than a couple of the side projects, even a C+ by Richard Thompson holds up pretty well against most of the music of the past five decades. Your mileage may vary.

The Fairport Years: 1967 – 1970
albums recorded as an active member of Fairport Convention; all credited to the band

  • Fairport Convention (1968, Polydor) A solid, if tentative, debut from a talented young band. [B-]
  • What We Did On Our Holidays (1969, Island) A quantum leap forward; one of the finest folk-pop albums of the era. [A+]
  • Unhalfbricking (1969, Island) Critically lauded but a bit uneven, with some moments of true brilliance, notably Who Knows Where the Time Goes? [A-]
  • Liege and Lief (1969, Island) One of the cornerstones of traditional folk rock and a powerful disc that stands the test of time. [A+]
  • Full House (1970, Island) RT’s last disc with the group on a solid set that presaged the all-male trad/cover blend that would serve Fairport well for most of the next four decades. [B+]
  • House Full (1986, Hannibal) Recorded in 1970, the only official live Fairport album with RT as a member of the band; a good overview of the powerful live sound, notable for a stunning version of the Thompson/Swarbrick song [B]

The Linda Years: 1972 – 1984
albums recorded from his Fairport departure up to his return to the major label;
mostly recorded with wife Linda Thompson unless otherwise noted

  • starring as Henry the Human Fly – Richard Thompson (reprise, 1972) A fine solo debut that shows RT’s skill at blending the uniquely English with rock traditions. [A]
  • I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (Island, 1974) A luminous gem with RT’s writing leaping forward and Linda’s vocals adding just the right note. [A+]
  • Hokey Pokey (Island, 1975) A fun mixed bag with a few real delights. [B+]
  • Pour Down Like Silver (Island, 1975) Dark meditations and songs of quiet power as the Thompsons prepared to retreat into a Sufi commune. [A]
  • First Light (Chrysalis, 1978) Overproduced and cluttered in spots, but a fine return with a handful of great songs. [B]
  • SunnyVista (Chrysalis, 1979) Trying too hard to shove the Thompsons into 70s pop, well-meaning producer Gerry Rafferty created their weakest disc of the decade. [B-]
  • Strict Tempo! – Richard Thompson (Elixir, 1981) A fun side project between labels, an all-instrumental set of mostly traditional favorites. [B]
  • Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal, 1982) Simply one of the finest albums ever made. Harrowing yet hopeful. [A+]
  • Hand of Kindness – Richard Thompson (1983, Hannibal) RT becomes comfortable as a solo act and bandleader, presenting one of his most consistent and often fun sets. [A-]
  • Small Town Romance – Richard Thompson (1984, Hannibal) A flawed live album of solo acoustic sets that shows off some rare tracks but was eventually pulled. [B-]

The Major Label Years: 1985 – 1999
albums recorded for Polydor and Capitol as he emerged from cult status and received some alternative radio airplay

  • Across A Crowded Room (1985, Polydor) A stirring set of songs that set the stage for RT’s growing fame. Wonderful songs, great music, strong band. [A-]
  • Daring Adventures (1986, Polydor) The first of RT’s albums with mixed-bag producer Mitchell Froom; a more subdued outing with some fine moments. [B+]
  • Amnesia (1988, Capitol) The least Froom-y of the series, ten songs without a dud but also without a strong standout. [B]
  • Rumor and Sigh (1991, Capitol) Some of RT’s best writing of the 90s and his commercial breakthrough (such as it was); the best songs worked better live and stripped down. [B+]
  • Mirror Blue (1994, Capitol) A few great songs, some ideas that don’t quite click, and the most intrusive Froom bag of tricks. A couple of gems, but arguably his weakest regular solo album. [B-]
  • You? Me? Us? (1996, Capitol) A fun two-disc set split between acoustic and electric songs. Edited down to one disc, it might have been brilliant; as it is, a very fine release. [B+]
  • Mock Tudor (1999, Capitol) Three mini-suites of strong songs about life in the post-industrial age, bracketing this period with his finest outing in years. [A-]

The Recent Years: 2000 – 2014
albums recorded since leaving Capitol, building on his reputation as an eclectic veteran musician and musical historian

  • The Old Kit Bag (2003, Cooking Vinyl) Unbound by big label expectations, RT’s work feels looser and more direct, with a nice set of songs. [B+]
  • 1000 Years of Popular Music (2003, Beeswing) A delightful concert disc showcasing his approach to the “Best songs of the past Millennium” challenge. Smart, funny, and brilliantly played, a great showcase of RT the music historian. [B+]
  • Live From Austin, Texas (2005, New West) A decent glimpse at the power of a live RT show. [B]
  • Front Parlour Ballads (2005, Cooking Vinyl) One of his finest sets of songs, very English folk rock with a smart, dark edge. [A]
  • Sweet Warrior (2007, Shout! Factory) Another set without a dud but without a strong standout. [B]
  • Dream Attic (2010, Shout! Factory) Continuing the trend, some fine work. [B]
  • Electric (2013, New West) New life and energy, taking the lead from the last two discs but moving with renewed passion. [A-]

Side Projects, Soundtracks, and Collaborations
albums from all of Thompson’s career that feature him as a part of a special project or in partnership with other musicians

  • Rock On – The Bunch (1970, Island) Fairport alumni and friends cover hits of the 50s; fun all around and a few magical moments. [B]
  • Morris On – Morris On (1970, Island) Former Fairport bassist and trad folk guru Ashley Hutchings’ all-star tribute to Morris music. Not for everyone, but brilliantly selected, sequenced, and played. [A-]
  • Live, Love, Larf, Loaf – French, Frith, Kaiser, Thompson (1987, Rhino) Four musical friends with little obviously in common turning out an eclectic, delightful outing with some real highs and a couple of clunkers. [B+]
  • The Marksman (music from the BBC series) – Richard Thompson and Peter Filleul (1987, BBC) A great showcase for the more subtle side of RT as he creates a strong musical backdrop for the TV program, just not a very strong Thompson sampler. [B-]
  • Invisible Means – French, Frith, Kaiser, Thompson (1990, Windham Hill) Lightning didn’t strike twice. Some fine moments, but not as magical as their first disc together. [B-]
  • Hard Cash – various artists (1990, Special Delivery) Modern work songs crafted for a BBC documentary series on the British working class. Co-produced by RT with Peter Filleul, featuring two strong RT performances and 12 other powerful songs by his friends and colleagues. [A-]
  • Sweet Talker – Richard Thompson (1991, Capitol) The disc that made him swear never to do another soundtrack, a very mixed bag of mostly mediocre mood music with one track that turned into something special later, the Tim Finn collaboration Persuasion. [C-]
  • Drunk With Passion – The Golden Palominos (1991, Restless) RT’s one outing with Anton Fier’s revolving door superstar experiment, a solid and predictably unpredictable journey. [B]
  • Live at Crawley – Richard Thompson with Danny Thompson (1995, Flypaper) The first of RT’s efforts to stave off bootlegs by releasing live work through his website. Of particular note since it’s all acoustic renderings by a brilliant duo that shows off some of the Rumor and Sigh material to its best advantage.
  • Industry – Richard Thompson and Danny Thompson (1997, Hannibal) A concept album about the end of the industrial age, nicely carried off and lovingly crafted. [B]
  • The Bones of All Men – Mr. Phillip Pickett with Mr. Richard Thompson and the Fairport Rhythm Section (1998, Ryco) An instrumental outing featuring two musical historians on an eclectic set of tunes compiled by Pickett. Intriguing and often dazzling. [B]
  • Grizzly Man – Richard Thompson (2005, Cooking Vinyl) Working with Werner Herzog got RT to do another soundtrack, and this one is his best, a truly evocative set of soundscapes. [B+]
  • Richard Thompson’s Cabaret of Souls (2012, Beeswing) A fascinating long-term project with compelling narratives and unexpected music. [B]

Compilations, Retrospectives & Tributes
albums compiling previous material, unreleased gems, and cover collections

  • (guitar, vocal) (1976, Island) Some lost gems, alternate versions, and live performances from Fairport through Pour Down Like Silver; a mixed bag with some must-have material. [B+]
  • Heyday: The BBC Radio Sessions – Fairport Convention (1987, Hannibal) 12 tracks recorded by the classic 1968 lineup, featuring some lovely covers and a transcendent take on Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne. [B]
  • Watching the Dark (1993, Hannibal) Three discs providing a full career retrospective (up to that point), with some alternate versions, unreleased material, and live tracks. A decent summation and a nice source of rare material for fans. [A-]
  • The World Is A Wonderful Place: The Songs of Richard Thompson (1994, Green Linnet) The quirky tribute album with offerings from less famous acts and some fairly daring reinterpretations, plus a lost Richard and Linda track. More solid than most of the mid-90s tribute fare and worth the price of admission. [B+]
  • Beat the Retreat: Songs by Richard Thompson (1994, Capitol) The big guns tribute disc, with R.E.M., Bonnie Raitt, and others. Much less consistent but better produced than its oddball colleague. June Tabor, Maddy Prior, and Martin Carthy shine, as do Raitt and Bob Mould. Most of the rest is curious filler. [C+]
  • The Best of Richard and Linda Thompson: The Island Records Years (2000, Island) More a quick introduction to four albums with one alternate and one live version. Buy the originals. [A for content, C for usefulness]
  • Action Packed (2001, Capitol) A great overview of RT’s Capitol years, with a handful of worthwhile outtakes to boot. [A-]
  • RT, the Life and Music of Richard Thompson (2006, Free Reed) RT gets the five-disc Free Reed treatment in a loving, exhaustive box that is loaded with alternate and live versions. Too many poor recordings and not enough material from the source albums make this a collection for completists. [B]
  • Live at the BBC (2011, Universal) A stunning three-disc, career-spanning set of live-in-the-studio performances, showing off the RT’s diversity and the flexibility of some of his best songs. [A]
  • Walking On A Wire (2009, Shout! Factory) A four-disc overview of all of RT’s career from the first Fairport release through Sweet Warrior. Somewhat scorned for having no unreleased content, it is in fact a stunning retrospective and a great collection for casual fans. [A]

Note: This list does not include most of the many boutique releases (mostly live) available through Thompson’s fan club or website, nor does it include the dozens of albums on which he has provided session work. A reasonably complete list with these and a few other additions is available on Wikipedia.

Song of Day, September 17: Tiny Dancer by Elton John

EltonTinyDToday’s song is the Elton John classic Tiny Dancer. It was recorded for his fourth album, Madman Across the Water, a strong set of songs that helped establish his talent and range before his big commercial breakthrough.

John’s regular collaborator, Bernie Taupin, wrote the lyrics to reflect his early impressions of California culture in 1970. As a skilled outsider, Taupin managed to capture the free spirit and diverse communities he found in a way that many local SoCal writers couldn’t. The resulting lyric inspired John to construct one of his early masterpieces, and arranger Paul Buckmaster provides a stirring string section that elevates the last half of the song into true epic territory. John’s vocal is lovely, showing off his dynamic and emotional range.

Although it has become a standard in his live sets and is considered one of his finest tracks, it met with limited initial success. It was not released as a single in the UK and missed the US Top 40 by one notch. In retrospect, however, it’s one of the best examples of a talent that was about to take over the pop music world.

Enjoy this moving live for broadcast version of a pop classic today.

Song of the Day, September 16: More Than Their Share by Dolly Parton

DollyShareToday’s song is More Than Their Share by Dolly Parton. It appears on her lovely 1969 album, The Fairest of Them All, a song cycle of love, loss, and life stories. Written by Parton, the song fits nicely in her frequent theme of women seeking equality and fairness. She bemoans a partner who takes more than he gives, wondering if that’s how love has to be. Fragile but not weak, it’s a compelling delivery that makes the most of her clear, pure vocals. Unlike many of her independent woman lyrics, this one finds the narrator earlier in the process of doubting her relationship, a tricky position that Parton lays out nicely in both lyric and vocal delivery.

I say I’m sorry when the fault is not mine
And I take the blame for our fights all the time
I love you so much and it doesn’t seem fair
That someone must always give more than their share

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, September 15: 50 White Lines by Kathryn Williams

KWQuickToday’s song is 50 White Lines by Kathryn Williams. By the time of her eighth album, 2010’s The Quickening, Williams had established herself as a potent, independent talent. Her acclaimed debut was recorded for only £80 and the follow-up, Little Black Numbers earned a Mercury Prize nomination. She recorded an album of well-chosen covers, dueted with Neill MacColl, and mixed in a regular stream of her own material, polishing her simple but powerful guitar-and-vocal sound.

The lead single on The Quickening is one of her finest moments. Narrated from behind the wheel of a car, it finds thd singer trying to escape into the night. The quick visual flashes in the lyrics are followed by a lilting chant of the phrase “like sparks,” reflecting her thought patterns as a steady voice counts the lines on the pavement zooming by. Quietly urgent, it captures the hypnosis of the nighttime road perfectly while maintaining a nice air of mystery.

Enjoy this wonderful song  today.

Album of the Week, September 14: Abyssinians by June Tabor

AbyssiniansJune Tabor was born in Warwick, England at the end of 1947. In 1965 she heard the incomparable Anne Briggs‘ EP Hazards of Love and taught herself to sing it note for note. She also developed a fondness for the work of singer and song collector Belle Stewart. She began singing in clubs and with small groups while at Oxford, honing her talent for unaccompanied traditional folk ballads. After appearing on a handful of folk albums in the early 70s she teamed with Steeleye Span vocalist Maddy Prior in 1976 for the lovely Silly Sisters, setting the stage for a career filled with smart partnerships. Her proper solo debut, Airs and Graces, appeared later that year, featuring a chilling rendition of Eric Bogle’s The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, a hint of her knack for selecting great contemporary material to cover. After another solo disc and a charming disc co-credited to guitarist Martin Simpson, she entered the studio in 1983 to record her masterpiece, Abyssinians.

Title Abyssinians
Act June Tabor
Label Topic Release Date 1983
Producer Andrew Cronshaw
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. The Month of January
  2. The Scarecrow
  3. One Night As I Lay On My Bed
  4. She Moves Among Men
    (The Bar Maid’s Song)
  5. Lay This Body Down
  6. A Smiling Shore
  7. The Bonny Boy
  8. I Never Thought My Love Would Leave Me
  9. The Bonny Hind
  10. The Fiddle and the Drum

Like the Simpson collaboration, this album contains a near 50/50 mix of traditional tunes and contemporary songs. Tabor’s deep, matchless voice had matured nicely at this point and her interpretive powers create a consistent musical thread through the ten diverse tracks. While the themes are often dark, the rich warmth of her singing lends a beautiful humanity to every song.

The album opens with the oft-recorded traditional track The Month of January. Tabor learned it from the singing of Sarah Makem, lending her own depth to the treatment. A classic ballad of romantic betrayal and dire consequences, it sets the stage for this set perfectly.

Tabor frequently interprets the songs of Lal Waterson; The Scarecrow – written by Lal and brother Mike for their timeless collaboration Bright Phoebus — is her first recording of Waterson work. It’s a haunting, mysterious song of natural forces. Tabor later observed of the song:

The strength of visual image is worthy of Ingmar Bergman, as is the story; the Earth Mother is all-powerful here.

Her interpretation is flawless, weaving this very English song into the traditional fabric of the album beautifully. Thirty years later, it remains one of her finest moments on record.

One Night As I Lay On My Bed is from another traditional trope, the night visit. The singer’s lover comes to call late at night, warned that mother and father are asleep in the next room. It’s a gentle, lovely song, and easily the most cheerful moment on the disc. The lullaby tone Tabor invokes is delightful. She Moves Among Men was written by regular Tabor collaborator Bill Caddick. It’s a darkly honest look at sexual politics and the price of womanly independence. Delivered with earnest vigor, it’s a particularly fine Tabor vocal, no mean feat in her long, lovely catalog.

Lay This Body Down is a spare, a capella reading of an old spiritual. Tabor wrings the weary resignation from every note, managing to imbue it with just enough hope for the next day.  A Smiling Shore, written by Andrew Cronshaw, is an evocative glimpse into the life of a Holocaust survivor. Told in raw fragments, it has an amazing power that Tabor treats with just the right balance of restraint and awe.

The next trio of songs are wonderful traditional ballads, sequenced together to create one of the finest snapshots of June Tabor’s strength as a singer and arranger. The Bonny Boy, learned from the singing of Anne Briggs, is a timeless tale of romantic betrayal. Rendered a capella, it’s a devastating emotional song lovingly rendered. I Never Thought My Love Would Leave Me is more wistful if no less tragic, the tale of a love that waned with age and the stark place the abandoned singer finds herself. Tabor notes that it haunted her from the moment she first heard it, and it’s clear that she put her whole energy into channelling the narrator’s sorrow. Similarly tragic but very different in theme, The Bonny Hind is a classic tale of disguise, lust, and mistaken identity. Sung with almost spry energy suited to the nautical and hunting themes, it’s one of the finest tracks on this powerful album.

Tabor winds things up with a very modern song that hews to ancient themes, Joni Mitchell’s anti-war ode The Fiddle and the Drum. She often sings traditional songs decrying military action and has recorded powerful covers of Eric Bogle’s anti-war epics. In this case, she adopts a less-is-more ethic that works nicely, quietly skewering those who turn from celebration to devastation. It wraps up the brief — barely 35 minutes — but stunning musical journey of Abyssinians with the perfect mix of tone, theme, and delivery. While Tabor has turned in an amazing, nearly flawless series of albums filtering a mixture of the old and new through her powerful talent, this set of ten songs remains the single most stirring and consistent album in her illustrious career.

FURTHER LISTENING: Solo or in collaboration, June Tabor has never released a bad — or even mediocre — album. Elvis Costello has famously observed that if you can’t appreciate her work you should stop listening to music. I can’t argue with him. The weakest link is her standards-only disc, Some Other Time. Tabor often includes standards on her albums, but part of her magic is the unexpected juxtapositions that this disc lacks. That said, it’s still a solid set and her voice is as compelling as always.

Her strongest outings are:

  • Ashes and Diamonds, her second proper solo album and one of her most fun listens;
  • No More to the Dance, her second outing with Maddy Prior (credited to Silly Sisters) and a well-sequenced set that rivals Abyssinians and features the joyous power of their blended vocals;
  • Angel Tiger, a more modern set that captures a classic folk vibe nicely;
  • At the Woods Heart, the finest of her later solo works;
  • Quercus, a live disc with frequent accompanists Huw Warren and Iain Ballamy that shows off her jazzier side; and
  • Ragged Kingdom, her second outing with the Oysterband and one of the highlights of both careers.

Free Reed also compiled a wonderful four-disc box set, Always, which captures the first three decades of Tabor’s career brilliantly.

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