Album of the Week, July 26: Albion Bookends – No Roses and Rise Up Like the Sun
July 26, 2015 Leave a comment
Ashley Hutchings is a restless spirit with a singular vision. He co-founded Fairport Convention in 1967, his distinctive bass work providing the steady pulse beneath the rapid evolution of the band. After a tragic accident nearly derailed the band, he immersed himself in research into traditional music, helping craft the band’s watershed, pioneering electric folk. Wishing to pursue that vein while his bandmates pushed to include original songs, he departed, founding another bastion of plugged-in traditional music, Steeleye Span. After three albums, he decided to pursue distinctly English folk and quit the band, retiring to the country to consider his next steps. He met established folk singer Shirley Collins, fell in love, and found his new course. The pair married and collaborated on an album that stands as a highlight in both impressive careers.
||Rise Up Like the Sun
|Act||Shirley Collins and the Albion Country Band||The Albion Band|
|Release Date||October 1971||March 1978|
|Producer||Ashley Hutchings and Sandy Robertson||Joe Boyd and John Tams|
Collins has an impressive musical resume. While considering a teaching career in England, she met American folk collector Alan Lomax in London. He sparked her growing interest in folk music and the pair toured the southern U.S. collecting songs. She built on that experience after returning home, recording a series of impressive thematic albums. Most were arranged by her sister, Dolly, whose ear for early music and unusual instruments set a distinctive backdrop for Shirley’s clean, pure vocals. She also recorded an album with jazz-folk guitarist Davy Graham, displaying her adventurous, collaborative spirit.
Collins and Hutchings inspired each other: their shared knowledge of traditional music, his intense desire to craft the finest modern vehicle for it, and her distinctive, straightforward singing set up a lesser-known but magnificent hallmark in English electric folk. No Roses features over two dozen performers. Hutchings’ infectious spirit and many connections helped him bring in an array of singers and musicians. Fairporters Richard Thompson and Dave Mattacks play on most of the tracks; members of the Watersons and Young Tradition join in the fun, as do numerous other folk luminaries.
Claudy Banks, collected by the legendary Copper family, starts things off just right. It’s a solid declaration of purpose and a lovely song enhanced by Collins’ delivery. Over the course of the next eight tracks, mostly first-person narratives, Collins and Hutchings work with their talented friends to serve up a delightful array of songs. The Little Gypsy Girl is a wink-and-nod lark; Banks of the Bann and Just As the Tide are delightful discoveries; Van Diemen’s Land is a perfectly dark transportation ballad that they give a clever twist. On The White Hare, Lal and Mike Waterson join in, managing to craft an even finer version of the song than the one their family recorded a few years earlier. A jolly chorus of singers provide heft to Hal-An-Tow, another staple of the folk circuit that shines with special energy here.
The two highlights of the album are the murder songs — each based on real events — that close each side. Hutchings builds a powerfully theatrical version of the Murder of Maria Marten, a retelling of the famous red barn murder. Sung from the perspective of the killer, the song alternates between his straightforward narration of the harrowing events and his pleas on the way to the gallows. It’s an amazing song, demonstrating Hutchings’ singular genius and Collins’ inspired singing while the band give them everything they need. Poor Murdered Woman is a perfect closer to the album, a quietly powerful song of sympathy and grief. It’s one of Collins’ finest vocal performances and an enduring example of Hutchings’ matchless art for framing a great song.
The assembled talent on No Roses was dubbed the Albion Country Band by Hutchings. These men and women would work together in a dizzying array of formal and informal groups for decades, often at Hutchings’ behest and inspiration. He created a slightly more formal Albion Country Band for one album, pursued some fascinating side projects, renamed the group Albion Dance Band to celebrate the Morris and other traditional dances that intrigued him, recorded an album, then rethought the band again.
The group’s fourth album featured the simpler name the Albion Band. Hutchings also decided to take a less active role, gathering the talent and providing bass and vocals but not producing or arranging. For those roles, he chose long-time Fairport producer Joe Boyd and rising talent and band member John Tams respectively. Tams rose to the challenge, demonstrating his powerful musical vision and crafting an amazingly diverse but eerily cohesive song cycle. In the end, Boyd shared the production credit with him.
With nine official members and a supporting cast that rivals No Roses, Rise Up Like the Sun has a solid core and dazzling spirit. Ragged Heroes is a Tams original, a stirring calling-on song that welcomes the listener to the proceedings. Invoking “half-remembered Albion hymns”, it hints at the treasures to come while showing off a great Tams vocal. Poor Old Horse is an adapted sea shanty that Tams intended to channel a country blues vibe. It’s a great song with an amazing sing-along chorus featuring Martin Carthy, Richard & Linda Thompson, Kate McGarrigle, and many others.
The instrumental pair Afro Blue / Danse Royale fuses John Coltrane and medieval courtliness with an energetic folk-rock adhesive. Inspired and unexpected, it’s typical of this fine album. Ampleforth is an old fiddle tune that bridges the instrumental with the next vocal piece. Lay Me Low is one of the album’s highlights, a stirring Shaker hymn painstakingly adapted to fit the tone of the disc. Richard Thompson’s Time to Ring Some Changes came from a demo that Hutchings heard — Thompson himself wouldn’t record it for another decade — and brought to the party. It’s a great political song and another invocation to action. House In the Country is a touching Travellers song featuring delightful vocals by Tams and Kate McGarrigle. The Primrose is another nice instrumental, a fun combination of two variants of the song. The original album ends with the grim, majestic Gresford Disaster, a tragic mining tale intoned by guest vocalist Martin Carthy. It’s a dark, stunning closer to a powerful album.
Later releases of Rise Up Like the Sun feature four bonus tracks that enhance the listening experience and round out the picture. Postman’s Knock is a fun dance tune that Hutchings had included on an earlier Morris album, here featuring a sly Tams vocal. Pain and Paradise is another Tams adaptation, a brilliant song of optimism and effort, and a rare Albion Band single; Tams remixed Lay Me Low as its b-side. The final track is another discarded Thompson song, Rainbow Over the Hill. Sung by Linda Thompson, its hopeful spirit brings the enhanced disc to a charming close.
Most of Rise Up Like the Sun was recorded live in the studio, a daunting task for the varied sounds and large assembly. Tams and Boyd inspired the group, creating a highlight of electric folk that shines with a charmingly different light than its peers.
FURTHER LISTENING: Given the complex array of talents on these discs, let’s look at four different catalogs.
ASHLEY HUTCHINGS – The bassist, vocalist, and inspirational band leader has an amazing, complicated set of recordings, ranging from his straightforward work with Fairport to one-off gatherings for a variety of musical purposes. His finest project outside of the various bands is 1972’s Morris On, a fun dance-folk collection co-starring Richard Thompson, Barry Dransfield, Dave Mattacks, and John Kirkpatrick. Hutchings has curated a number of discs that collect his many musical projects, all bearing the title The Guv’nor. The box set of these discs is a perfect, if necessarily incomplete, overview of his career.
SHIRLEY COLLINS – Despite her long career, Collins has a fairly small catalog. Her collaboration with Davy Graham, 1967’s Folk Roots, New Routes, is an inspired blending of seemingly irreconcilable talents and helped set the stage for electric folk. The lovingly crafted themed albums she created with sister Dolly are beautiful and complex. I find the careful arrangements a bit difficult to penetrate, but the passion and brilliance behind them are clear. The best of these is Love, Death and the Lady.
THE ALBION BAND – The group’s first official album after backing Collins is Battle of the Field, an amazing disc that compares well to these two seminal recordings. The lone Albion Dance Band album, The Prospect Before Us, is a fine romp but lacks the cohesion of Hutchings’ best projects. After Rise Up, the band became a more predictable, slightly less inspired enterprise but continued to offer fine traditional and modern folk songs with a changing array of talented members.
JOHN TAMS – As the Albion Band splintered into side projects, Tams poached some of the best talent for Home Service, a group he co-founded with Bill Caddick. Their work as a band and as musical support for the National Theatre helped establish him as a force to be reckoned with and set the stage for a small but impressive solo catalog in the 21st Century. More on that another week.