Traditional and Modern
In case anyone thought that her ex had sole rights on lugubrious vignettes where losers have to deal and dwell with their failures Linda Thompson's 'comeback' album draws much of its material from a similar territory. It is very appealing, if you are of that persuasion. And I suppose I am. Tales of abortive love, despair, murder and going into 'whoring' abound here.
She has also recruited an all-star cast from the folk world and beyond ; a Carthy or two, Kate Rusby, Kathryn Tickell, Danny Thompson & Van Dyke Parks as well as the Thompson family, Teddy, Kamila & Richard. So there can be no doubts about the musicianship. Listen out for Jerry Donahue's restrained guitar on 'All I See', for example. There are, of course, plenty of breath-taking vocal moments, like Kate Rusby's voice merging effortlessly with Thompson's on the countrified 'No Telling'. Two generations in perfect harmony. Similarly, son Teddy contributes a strong performance on Lal Waterson's 'Evona Darling', both as lead and harmony vocalist.
Although the songs are contemporary, some could easily be mistaken for traditional pieces, perhaps showing how she has absorbed and drawn on the narrative techniques of the genre. 'The Banks of the Clyde' is a good example, weaving its story of exile and hard times against the sparse lamentations of Tickell's Northumbrian pipes and John Doyle's acoustic guitar. Another song, 'Nine Stone Rig', is in fact partly based on a 'faux' Scottish ballad and takes familiar elements of love and death as its themes. Once again the instrumentation is minimal, just acoustic guitar from Doyle and understated double bass from Danny Thompson.
There are a couple of less memorable songs which kick off the album but you can always skip them. Whatever you do don't skip 'Paint & Powder Beauty'. This is, for me, the best song on the album, a lazy shuffle featuring suitably world weary vocals and Robert Kirby's sublime string arrangement. Remember his work with Nick Drake ? This too is beautifully evocative and atmospheric. Rufus Wainwright also deserves credit for his part in its composition.
The album closes with 'Dear Old Man of Mine' which may or may not be an autobiographical song delivered by Linda, Teddy and Kamila Thompson. It is another unadorned outing that gains much of its poignancy from the pared-down accompaniment. After last year's uneven compilation, 'Give Me A Sad Song', it bodes well for future work from a singer who may now be able to step out of the shadows cast by some of her contemporaries and claim a place of her own.
By contrast, Bill Jones has only been performing for a couple of years but already has a growing reputation as a singer of both contemporary and traditional songs. This, her fourth cd, draws on the previous three and presents familiar material in new, live arrangements.
Her pure and unaffected vocals are supported by her own accordion, whistle and piano playing as well as Roger Wilson's fiddle and guitar and Keith Angel's drums. Miranda Sykes on bass/double bass and harmony vocals adds some vital contributions too. These harmonies flesh out the acapella 'Panchpuran' which I felt was too stark on the album of the same name. They also enhance Jones' delivery of 'Stor Mo Chroi' which is even more haunting this time.
'The Hexham Lad & The Blackleg Miner' stand up well without the brass arrangements, in fact they benefit from Jones' own energetic whistle soloing. Similarly, the live version of 'The Tale Of Tam Lin' doesn't have the string quartet accompaniment of the original. Jones' piano is set alongside fiddle and double bass allowing the purity of her voice to become more evident. I'm not sure why they thought it necessary to have parts of the song spoken behind her singing. I found it a bit distracting. Her own chat between songs, however, reflects how at ease she seems to be. The brief introductions are both intimate and confident. She doesn't over-explain the songs either, as some do.
Her choice of non-traditional songs may not please the purists but her take on the Goffin/King standard, 'Goin' Back', suits her voice. Equally poignant is the treatment of Brian Bedford's 'What Am I Bid'. Her pairing of 'Blood and Gold & The Universal Soldier' means that the songs are being heard again, which has to be a good thing. The latter is sung without any affected anger so that the words convey a message which still remains relevant, unfortunately. Including a Kate Bush song, 'Never Be Mine', probably wont endear her to the trad music police either but I don't suppose she cares. In fact her admission that she hasn't always been into folk is pretty refreshing. And thankfully the song isn't a vehicle for her to attempt Bush-like vocal histrionics either. So it's a bonus.
For someone whose career is still in its early days this is an assured performance ably supported by well-chosen musicians. I look forward to catching a live performance soon which, since she seems to be touring almost constantly, shouldn't be difficult.
© Paul Donnelly 2002