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9 May 2011

Shirley & Dolly Collins - 'Anthems in Eden' (Harvest)

I have slightly dreaded writing about these Shirley Collins records. I do like them, but I don't find them to be a point of obsession like many of my friends. I'm not English and suffering lately from a tad of traditional overload, but I recognise these records as masterpieces of great enduring strength and beauty, etc. Dolly's arrangements are certainly a big part of the appeal, and her organ playing has a slightly goofy, carnivalesque feel to it. Though the solo Shirley track, 'Gathering Rushes in the Month of May', is stunning. Now it's easy to think of this as early music revival, ren fair jams, or what have you -- but a lot of these instruments were basically dead at the time of recording (which I believe was 1969) so it was a big deal to arrange these for sackbut, crumhorn and descant. Also, I like harpsichords and there's a nice spattering of it across these songs. Side one is a big suite of traditional songs adapted into a narrative form, which is brilliantly done. Shirley kicks out the righteous vibrato in her voice when necessary. Check out 'Lowlands', a song I do quite love, here presented as the 'dream' part of the song-story. She's joined by a chorus of male voices at just the right ratio; they sound great opening the last part of the story, 'A New Beginning/The Staines Morris', a morris dance I guess. Under Shirley's voice, the contrapuntal reeds and bells create a pleasing, almost hypnotic effect. But it's actually side two that I love more - seven songs, ranging from the soft tones of 'Bonny Cukoo' to the dark, Robert Burns poem 'Ca' The Yowes'. The arrangements are more stripped down, sometimes just voice and one reed instrument, maybe the occasional chord stuck on the harpsichord ('Nellie the Milkmaid'). There's a blueprint here for all manners of folk revival, if it so pleases you.

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