There has been a growing movement in recent years to showcase genre music in the hands of non-genre artists — or at least artists in another genre. Rod Stewart tried his hand at Cole Porter and his ilk (scary). Pat Boone tried hard rock (really scary). There was Rogue’s Gallery (Anti, 2006), an uneven but glorious two-disk compilation of pirate songs featuring just about everyone still breathing in contemporary music.
I expected something similar from Old Wine, New Skins, based merely on the title. So I was very pleasantly surprised to find out it is, instead, a classic collection of folk songs and singers. The CD is a companion piece to The Folk Handbook: Working With Songs From The English Tradition (Backbeat Books, 2007). Clean and straightforward, it showcases 17 songs from the book in an exquisitely simple presentation: Good songs. Good singers. Good musicians.
The singers here span over a half-century in age. Some, like Lucy Wainwright Roche, are young scions of musical families; others, like Jacqui McShee and Shirley Collins (ageless voices!) are damn near folk songs themselves. There are the utterly modern cutting edge singers like Circulus, and pleasant surprises like Noel Harrison. The artists chose their songs for this CD, and they are all well done.
I had favourites, of course: I was especially taken with young Roche’s voice on “Barbara Allen”, where she displays a soprano as pure and cool as starlight. In contrast, Robin and Bina Williamson, stalwarts since the 1960s, bring voices like afternoon sunlight to “The Little Gypsy Girl”: mature, mellow, just a little thin but still gorgeous. Noel Harrison gives “O Pleasant and Delightful” a perfect sweet fool’s voice, while Barry Dransfield tears into “John Barleycorn” with a rollicking energy and a delightful countryman’s accent.
Some don’t quite work, though it’s not for lack of quality: sometimes the presentation that inspires the artist just doesn’t speak to the auditor. For me, the most obvious example was Lisa Knapp’s “A Blacksmith Courted Me” — her voice is lovely, but she performs it as a dirge, in a tempo so slow and attenuated one wants to scream. It’s a genuine shame, since her not-quite-bel canto phrasing would have benefited from an increased tempo. I thought James Yorkston’s “Edward” dragged as well, but that’s a lugubrious song at best, and by his own testimony he was trying for a gothic feel.
The instrumentation is classic and largely acoustic but not simplistic: the creepy backgrounds on “Long Lankin” and “The Unquiet Grave” are especially effective, as are the complexities of string and wind on “John Barleycorn” and “The Banks of Sweet Primroses.” The physical presentation of the CD is very nice as well — simple, but rich with information, especially the liner notes by Mark Brend of Backbeat Books. The actual cover features a watercolour suggesting a storm-lit green sky, silhouetting wine bottles, violins and wildflowers: still but not static, and what could be a better metaphor for old music?
Old Wine, New Skins is the sort of almost anonymous album we all listened to when we were young, memorizing every nuance of the performances, so we could go out and wreck them at Renaissance Faires. (Most of us weren’t very good, but that’s not the music’s fault.) It remains the best way to hear music, especially folk music — sitting down and letting the voices and the music just cascade over one and fill one up. This is drinking sweet water from the primal spring and it’s better than wine in any skin at all.
(Dusk Fire, 2007)