Monday, March 21, 2011

Sound the Tabor

British Isles folksinger June Tabor is very much the doyenne among rival claimants, and that's because she is blessed with one of the most haunting, mood-driven voices in the entire world of recorded music. (A tabor with great pipes, say.) There are splendid older and younger singers across the Pond, of course, from Norma Waterson and her daughter Liza Carthy, to Maddy Prior and Kate Rusby; but for us fans of June, the release of a new Tabor CD is a cause for curiosity, suspense and then, most often, wonder and celebration.

The question every time is: Has she cut an album of traditional songs and the English/Scottish ballads, creating another of her "doom and gloom" masterworks like 2003's Border ballads set, An Echo of Hooves, grandly sung tales steeped in bloody revenge and desperate love? (Yea, verily, cry "Hughie Graeme" and "Young Johnstone" and "Sir Patrick Spens," grimly rendered all.) Or has she taken a sidestep and produced an album of slowed-down standards or modern folksongs or a mixed potpourri organized around some general theme perhaps? Such queries matter just now because Ms. Tabor has a brand-new release simply titled Ashore--which is where we'll get eventually.

Over the course of her 40-year career, June has worked most effectively with a somewhat narrow cast of musicians--whole albums with Maddy Prior (as "the Silly Sisters"), brilliant folk guitarist Martin Simpson, and genius side men ranging from Nic Jones and Andrew Cronshaw to the current core four of Andy Cutting, Tim Harries, Mark Emerson, and Huw Warren--but on a few experimental occasions the results seemed attenuated if not misguided (comedy with Les Barker, new age-y songs by harpist Savourna Stevenson, even a high profile tour with electric folkrockers the Oyster Band). June can sing anything, really; even an old British Bell phone book would sound throaty, a bit mysterious, wounded (though not a victim), worldly wise, her ringing tones never flat but at times slipping deeper into darkness.

In her early 60's now, she has sung with the same maturity, quiet power, and husky contralto beauty all along, but her interpretations have deepened and slowed, the finest now enfolding the listener in roses and brambles, the green earth and the darkening sea, hypnotic tunes and heraldic words--like Morgan le Fay ensnaring Merlin, or Mother Nature wrapping her arms around Ophelia.

Think I'm waxing past poetry into silliness? Well, June is also known for mocking her own seriousness and the severe look she adopts in photos. In live performance she can be witty and charming, happily breaking up all the tales of doomed lovers. I witnessed that first-hand when I attended a Tabor-Simpson concert during the 1980 or maybe '81 Edinburgh Festival--vast and varied, as always, with events eccentric to elegant. I saw bizarre Fringe plays, young and exciting cellist Yo Yo Ma, Scots vocalist Jean Redpath, a glorious performance of Mahler's Fourth Symphony, a concert by brusque and brilliant Dick Gaughan, a Strindberg play (Miss Julie, as I remember it 30 years later) presented in the original Swedish and directed by Ingmar Bergman, and much much more--but THE highlight of those weeks, and one of the very best live concerts I've ever attended, was June and Martin duetting simply and powerfully for 90 minutes, a great singer and a great guitar master both still in the flush of youth but at the top of their game, a definitive experience of that "doom and gloom" leavened, indeed laughed at, by the camaraderie of the duo at play(ing).

Simpson backed her for a few years, then moved on to pursue a solo career (he still drops by for the odd tune occasionally), and June settled on a repertoire and pattern of arrangements centered on the four remarkable musicians mentioned earlier: agile diatonic accordionist Andy Cutting, bottomland double-bassist Tim Harries, master of folk fiddling Mark Emerson (on violin, viola, and piano too when needed), and regular pianist, the lilting, subtle, single-note-runs specialist Huw Warren, with one or some or all four on nearly every track she has cut for maybe 20 years now. And it's fascinating how June's voice becomes a fifth instrument--a cello, say--added to the arrangements. Or maybe I should say... the central instrument around which the others circle and entwine--for traditional ballads, modern folk tunes and, more rarely, caberet-ish songs in French or Yiddish, unexpected Jazz compositions, even Music Hall numbers.

I said June can make almost anything hauntingly beautiful, and I stick by that judgment, but sometimes she and the guys just pick a wrong 'un and/or dress it in strange attire. At the Wood's Heart, for example, includes misfit versions of "Heart Like a Wheel" (over-dramatized, even with Simpson's guitar answering, and also unnecessary given the simpler, defining performances by the McGarrigle Sisters and Linda Ronstadt) and Ellington's "Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me" (with Ducal, anti-folk rhythm and soprano sax wailing). The album Rosa Mundi sinks into sentimentality too often, its single "roses" theme forcing the selection of some lesser songs and schmaltzy stacked strings. Similarly, A Quiet Eye functions as a folk big-band album with oddball choices like "The Making of Tipperary/It's a Long Way to Tipperary" and then World War II's "I'll Be Seeing You," and brass brashly in excess elsewhere, overwhelming some fragile folk melodies.

Yet that last CD also soars with splendid performances as simple as "I Will Put My Ship in Order" and as monumental as "A Place Called England," as lovely as "The Water Is Wide" and as angry as Richard Thompson's "Pharoah." (June has gravitated to Thompson songs on several occasions, most memorably for a mesmerizing version of "The Great Valerio" on the CD titled Aleyn.) Whether mixed bag or themed array, every album has a few perfect Tabor treats, right from her 1976 solo debut, Airs and Graces ("Reynardine," "The Band Played Waltzing Matilda," "Pull Down Lads") through 1988's potent and eccentric Aqaba (with trad. "The Banks of Red Roses," klezmer-sourced "Mayn Rue Plats," and the bio-in-song title track, tracing the life of Lawrence of Arabia!) to the several CDs of her major resurgence in the 'Nineties and 'Oughts. Aleyn, to pick just one, ranges far and farther, with eerie arrangements on love songs "Go from My Window" and "I Wonder What's Keeping My True Love Tonight"; a trad.-adapted, beautifully sad rejection of false lads, "April Morning"; a Jewish immigrants lament titled "Di Nakht"; a charming remembrance of a neighborhood character observed to be "A Proper Sort of Gardener"; and closing the album transformatively, a gorgeous, slowed-down sea-shanty called "Shallow Brown."

I've raved sufficiently. June's excellent and lighter 2007 CD, Apples, starts with "The Dancing," moves through "The Rigs of Rye" to find that "My Love Came to Dublin," and ends gently with another at-sea wonder, "Send Us a Quiet Night," peacefully drifting away; and I like to imagine that the last one lodged in June's heart and mind and slowly persuaded her to make an entire album of gone-to-sea, missing-the-sea, tired-of-the-sea jigs and songs and laments--which became the just-released Ashore, with every track a winner. But let me mention first in passing that once again June--as on four-fifths of her near-20 albums; look back over the ones I've mentioned--has selected an album title beginning with the letter A; and I think this chosen word, and image, were lifted from two songs in particular...

Because for this CD she has actually gone back 20 and 35 years to reclaim splendid songs she first recorded on shared albums, "Finisterre" from her collaboration with the Oyster Band, and "The Grey Funnel Line" from her earlier duets with Maddy Prior--and in both cases June has crafted new, personally definitive versions. "Finisterre" has eighty-sixed the rock drums and gained an air of mystery; just the way she says the name "Santander" in the repeating chorus will give you goosebumps. Ex-seaman Cyril Tawney's "Grey Funnel Line" seems slower, sadder, somehow conveying both grief and relief as the sailor contemplates leaving the service and going ashore for the last time. (The idea of being ashore is strong in this lyric though the word is not used, but "The Bream Lament" says it several times, related to drowned sailors washing up, being buried--the dead man's body or his boots only--below the tideline, ashore forever.)

Tawney has another quiet lament for a love lost and an era passed by, in the oddly titled "Oggie Man" (a dockside seller of pasties displaced by the vans of "progress"), and June's singing makes it relevant, important, even heart-breaking. Whether a slip-jig or morris dance allowing Cutting and Emerson to strut their stuff while she lays out ("Jamaica" and "Vidlin Voe"), or a Post-Mod take on families in the "Shipbuilding" trade (written by Elvis Costello), or a superb, dare-you-to-top-this rendition of "The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry," the fantastic Child ballad (#113) of love and death among a girl upon the land, her mer-seal lover, and their wee grey bairn... all things are glorious.

And then slowly, slowly, like the tide encroaching on a broad flat sand, the album sails West, "Across the Wide Ocean" to America, carrying thousands of proud and angry Scots displaced by the ruthless "Clearances" of the Highlands & Islands. It's a 12-minute epic telling that June and the band take up and carry--seamlessly, easily, commandingly--like sails holding the wind, onward all the way to the new land and the unanticipated resentment of immigrants that was shameful in the past and is surely stupid today. June and the song relate that unending tale.

Ignoring man's inhumanity and greed, "Nothing lasts," she says matter-of-factly, "not the old ways, not love." Still, she does... June Tabor in her Navy greatcoat, stalking the shoreline, searching for survivors, their songs old and new--Gallipoli to Auschwitz, Good King Richard to Bonnie Prince Charlie, lovers' skirmishes to Border Wars, demons of hell to the green fields of England... signaling goodbye to Santander, singing the great selkie home.

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