Sunday, May 18, 2008
by Simon Reynolds
So freakily fashionable has British folk become these past few years, forgotten figures like Anne Briggs, Shirley Collins, and Vashti Bunyan are now hipster icons. Strangely, one female minstrel who rarely gets mentioned is June Tabor. Maybe it’s because, during what’s generally regarded as folk’s golden age, she was just a part-time musician squeezing performances in when her day job as librarian allowed. Indeed Tabor only got around to recording a debut LP, Airs and Graces in 1976, a decade after the first Incredible String Band and Fairport albums.
Like the Sandy Denny box, Always makes a convincing case for Tabor as not just a giant in the traditional music pantheon, but as a great singer beyond genre. The compiling pointedly showcases her accomplishments as an interpreter of songs with much broader provenance than folk. Alongside the heritage ballads you’d expect, there are unlikely readings of Costello’s “All This Useless Beauty,” Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” even Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Meditation.” All are tastefully arranged and decked out with “beautiful playing” that mostly draws on the cream of UK folk musicianship but, in the case of Kris Krisofferson’s “Casey’s Last Ride,” utilizes horn players from the Creative Jazz Orchestra.
Always suffers slightly from the box set’s tendency to avoid obvious faves and classics in favour of unreleased songs, alternate performances, and sundry other enticements for fans who already own all the albums. Like other career summations, it also attempts to display the full temporal span of the oeuvre (artists always believe that they only get better and better at what they do). Still, without wishing to, er, box Tabor in stylistically, I can’t help wishing there was less Nineties/Noughties material and more from the Seventies, when she sang either unaccompanied or with very sparing acoustic backing, as represented here by wintry beauties like “The Four Loom Weaver”, “The Fair Maid of Wallington,” and “Bonny May.” For all their narrative intent, these traditional songs aren’t really exercises in interpretation. Rather than drawing on the singerly arts of phrasing and dramatic nuance (leave that all crap to the Elaine Pages, please), they work through a different kind of technique, incantatory and keening. The singer seems to be in a trance of pure longing or grief, a trance that entrances. The way Tabor runs a “shiver” (Andrew Cronshaw’s word) through the marrow of the melody invokes something ageless, atavistic, heathen.
Tabor’s vocal gift lend itself towards darkness: ancient tales of murder and retribution like “Young Johnstone,” or more recent woes like the ANZAC soldiers killed and crippled at Gallipoli, as commemorated in “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”. Oh, there’s joy too, now and then-- her skippy, chirruping vocal on “The Overgate” dances and glitters like a brook dappled with sunlight. But it’s the more haunted, desolated songs that truly bring out Tabor’s witchy beauty.