Various artists’ The Acoustic Folk Box

cover art for The Acoustic Folk BoxBig Earl Sellar wrote this review.

I’ve always had the view that compilations come in two shades: the first are uniform releases that stand as a cohesive whole; the second are generalist overviews, with listenable and skippable tracks. This four disc set from the fine folks at Topic falls into the latter category. I suppose trying to shoebox four decades worth of material from one incredibly broad folk tradition is bound to drop some clinkers for the sake of padding or filler. But overall this set is quite good, especially for people unfamiliar with the traditions it covers.

Disc One starts with a Lonnie Donegon cut from 1957 and has as it’s newest cut Ralph McTell’s “Spiral Staircase” from 1969. From a listener’s standpoint, it’s the most uneven disc, as some amazing tracks are intermixed with some duff historical tracks. I was, of course, drawn towards the guitar instrumentals, from the aforementioned “Sprial Staircase,” to Davy Graham/Alexis Korner’s groundbreaking “3/4 AD,” and the chestnuts “Savoy” and “Angi,” by Martin Carthy and Bert Jansch, respectively. The vocal numbers tend to go from the trite and dated (The Galliards, the Ian Campbell Folk Group) to the comfortably familiar (The Watersons, Sandy Denny). There’s nothing really mindblowing here, except perhaps the classic ’63 take of Annie Briggs “She Moves Through The Fair,” which is still gripping almost 40 years later. But in the light of the succeeding years, tracks by the likes of the Incredible String Band seem dated and quaint. A good overview of a formative period, if not always as compelling as it could be.

Disc Two, which encompasses 1967 through 1979, is probably the most long in tooth of the four discs in the set. Here, we hear the conflicts between those artists viewing the traditions as starting points for reinterpretation (Pentangle, Lal & Mike Waterson) and those in a traditionalist view (Etchingham Steam Band, Shirley Collins), with most of the latter creating an almost museum atmosphere for the proceedings. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with arranging the tradition closely to its roots, it’s just that for every flash of fire (The Bothy Band), one wades through a great deal of ash (Peter Bellamy, New Victory Band, Oak, etc.). I’ve always been more attracted to those which explore traditions in interesting way, so many listeners are bound to disagree with me. But I found that there were maybe five songs on this disc worth revisiting on a regular basis, with the other three quarters leaving me cold.

Which is not the case with Disc Three. Here, there is both reinterpretation and fire, making it the best disc of the set. Any disc that opens with the Battlefield band segueing into Rory McLeod, Dick Gaughan, and then Richard Thompson can’t be less than brilliant. Add Altan, the Silly Sisters and Blowzabella, and you have a winning disc that could stand on its own. The traditionalists, like the Old Swan Band and Brass Monkey, play with a vigour largely lost on Disc Two, providing the impetus to the continued popularity of British folk music to this day. And when June Tabor reinterprets the tradition through the torch style from the U.S. on “Lay This Body Down,” the listener gets a sense of the myriad of possibilities available by mixing the old and the new. This is the most cohesive disc of the set, and the most enjoyable.

Yet, Disc Four comes mighty close. On this disc we really start seeing the next generation of British folk, with Eliza Carthy, Kate Rusby, and Nancy Kerr mixing with the old guard of June Tabor, Lal Waterson, and so forth, marking a much more interesting transitional period than documented on Disc Two. Richard Thompson is featured again, with a stunning “Beeswing” (the live Two Letter Words version), and the set comes full circle with Waterson:Carthy’s “When I First Came To Caledonia.” The reinterpretation continues at a fine pace, with artists like Carthy and Shooglenifty; the tradition sounds better than ever thanks to Jez Lowe & The Bad Pennies and Fernhill. And while Tabor is awfully jazzy on “A Place Called England,” there really aren’t any tracks on the disc that drag. Again, it stands up to scrutiny as a standalone disc, and it has had a lot of spins in my car lately.

The main attraction to compilations, in my opinion, is a chance to be exposed to new or unfamiliar artists that should be added to the personal collection. This disc contains two tracks that I replayed over and over, two artists to track down. One is Nic Jones’ live “Billy Don’t You Weep For Me.” Although I’ve read much about this sadly sidetracked master, I’d never heard his syncopated grooves before. The other is a newer voice, Chris Wood, whose stunning take of Was Not Was’s “Out Come The Freaks” sent me in search of his disc. As for the set as a whole, I could probably pare it down to a self-burnt two disc set of righteous proportions, but given the overview nature of the set, it works fairly well.

The liner notes are brief but fairly informative, filled out with some great photos of the artists and related record covers and publications. Although there is a note in the booklet apologizing for missing artists, there are two crucial ones missing. It is criminal that Fairport Convention is not represented, especially given the alumni spread through these discs and the number of times that they’re mentioned in the notes themselves. The other is the Pogues, the band that really got the revival moving among the younger generation in the 1980s. Although the standard apology of not being able to secure rights to some missing artists is used, given that some artists (most notably Thompson) are represented by alternative takes, surely the compilers could find similar tracks for both Fairport Convention and the Pogues.

So, is The Acoustic Box Set worth it? That’s a hard call. There are not many rare tracks here to entice someone who already owns the cream of the tracks. It’s a little daunting for the newcomer, especially given the material on the first two discs. But I challenge anyone find me a multi-disc various artist compilation set that doesn’t have these problems. Overall, it’s a good buy, and is bound to have at least a couple of hours of great music for even the most jaded listener.

(Topic Records, 2002)

Diverse Voices

Diverse Voices is our catch-all for writers and other staffers who did but a few reviews or other writings for us. They are credited at the beginning of the actual writing if we know who they are which we don't always. It also includes material by writers that first appeared in the Sleeping Hedgehog, our in-house newsletter for staff and readers here. Some material is drawn from Folk Tales, Mostly Folk and Roots & Branches, three other publications we've done.

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