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FINEST KIND For Honour & For Gain

For Honour & For Gain

Fallen Angle Music  FAM09

I can think of lots of two men/one woman trios on the Folk Scene down the years, from Peter Paul & Mary (I still marvel at Ralph J. Gleason’s wonderful epithet of the young PPM as “two rabbis and a hooker”!), through The Young Tradition to Swan Arcade … and on to the Cockersdale line-up of the present day.  And I tell you, this trio based in Canada are good enough to be mentioned in the same breath as any of them.

By and large, this album fair entranced me.  It grabs the listener from the opening seconds of its astonishingly value-packed I hr 27 secs running time.   They make you sit up and pay immediate attention with their version of Bay Of Biscay, a night visiting song that lead vocalist Ian Robb first heard in St. Albans Folk Club in 1969.  They exude total command from the get-go.

Robb – as you may guess from that – hails from Britain.  Ann Downey, the lady of the group, has her roots in the South West of the USA, and Shelley Posen is from Toronto.   And the three of them (aided by multi-instrumentalist James Stephens) have come up with an album that is a joy to review.

It’s nicely eclectic: shanties, contemporary folk, traditional ballad, the bravely original (their witty take on their singing of John Barleycorn).  Gosh there is even an iconic song straight from Music Row in Nashville!

I note that this trio have been together for close on 20 years.  I am not surprised.   They have clearly got to the stage where they know each other’s harmonic line inside out: they are so sure-footed, it makes one marvel.

Now, in trying to describe their magic, I am not going to make the mistake of the chap who so admired the lark’s song that he cut the throat of one to try to find out what caused such a beautiful sound.  In other words, one can over-analyse these things. 

But it does immediately strike me that this group doesn’t conform to the usual one tenor/one bass format of such a trio: the blokes both have an astonishing range.   And they are complemented by Ann, who has a remarkable ability to come chiming into the melodic line with the purest, cleanest harmonic sound you’ll hear in a month of Sundays.

What songs really spoke to me?  Well most of them.   I was deeply moved by a song new to me from the American Civil War called Tenting on the Old Camp Ground.   As is explained in the excellent liner notes, its anti-war sentiments are as relevant today as ever.   And talking about being moved: I always loved the work of the late Utah Phillips, and his hobo song He Comes Like Rain (Like Wind He Goes), has a sense of WH Davies and his Autobiography of a Super-Tramp at his best.  It genuinely brought a tear to my eye.

A couple of Copper Family classics are performed to perfection.  True, we will always miss Cousin Ron Copper’s rasping bass, but golly, this was as kosher an imitation as you’ll find.   (Is that really praise from me?   Well, it is and it isn’t.   Perhaps I would have liked the arrangement tweaked a bit more: it’s just a little bit too “Rottingdean Revisited”, perhaps?   But hey, coming up with a Copper Family sound as eerily good as theirs, is a real skill in itself: and one that should never be left un-praised.)

But the pre-eminent song of the album just has to be the magnificent John Barleycorn Deconstructed.  Shelley wrote it for harmony workshops, after realising that a musical demo would be worth a thousand words of technical instruction.  And as they say in the notes: “it is a play-by-play description of the arrangement as we sing it – deconstructed as it were.  To our surprise we now get requests for John Barleycorn Deconstructed in concert”.

It succeeds most brilliantly.   Indeed, the chewing gum had long lost its flavour for me on the original: and now I can’t get enough of their customised model! This is one of those highly original songs that will live long in the canon, like Adam McNaughtan’s Oor Hamlet.

I’ve a list of about a dozen songs, Shelley, that I‘d love you to do a similar job on, and present us with a Mark 2 “deconstructed” version.  Starting with Bold William Taylor.    And as for that BWT song - which I once so enjoyed - the chewing gum hasn’t so much lost its flavour, as has been swallowed.    To my ears it urgently needs an injection of your wit.   Indeed, please let’s have a whole album of “deconstructed” songs.

You’ve really started something here.

Dai Woosnam

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This album was reviewed in Issue 87 of The Living Tradition magazine.