I have to admit I was a little disappointed with this CD at first. I was hoping for something more like Liege and Lief, what with so many alums of that best folk rock record ever present (on one track or another, everybody but Sandy Denny and Dave Swarbrick). But this is very much an Ashley Hutchings project, and Hutchings left Fairport Convention because he thought their sound wasn't folky enough. Another way to look at this is that it's an electric Shirley Collins record. The point is it doesn't rock all that hard-its still electric, still kinda folk rock, but it has a much more gentle, rural vibe. The only song that strongly calls Liege and Lief to mind is The Murder of Maria Marten, which is so great it's almost worth the price of the CD.
But if you take the rest of the CD on it's own terms, it's pretty interesting. Hutchings and Collins were trying to revitalize traditional English music, which they saw as moribund and endangered by the spread of American and Celtic music. The result is so unrepentantly unabashedly English that for a Yank like myself, and I suspect for many English listeners as well, it's almost exotic, like a kind of world music, as foreign-sounding in it's whiter-than-white way as the latest disc out of Mali or Tuva. They're not afraid of concertinas or fol-a-diddle fol-a-day choruses here. But, for my money, they make them work. It doesn't sound corny, it sounds rootsy-English roots, mate. We're not talkin' uptight repressed bowler hat and umbrella British English, we're talkin' earthy peasant English, singing for pints in the pub dancing round the May Pole bringing in the sheep screwing in the hay English. And some of the melodies are really beautiful, particularly The Banks of the Bann (with Shirley's sister Dolly on piano) and Just as the Tide Was Flowing (given a more rocked-out treatment twenty years later by 10,000 Maniacs).
Shirley is in fine voice (she describes her voice in the accompanying notes as "moldy and strange, but at least it's my own", which is a very fair assessment), although she does get buried a bit on the louder songs-she's no Sandy Denny. Her voice is more fragile, but that fragility can make it very affecting. It has a salt of the earth quality that I find very appealing, and it is of course quite, quite English.
The arrangements are excellent-varied and very evocative, with interesting mixes of instruments (electric guitar, medieval instruments, accordion, even the sound of a horse-drawn cart on one song) but they're a little tight-not a lot of soloing, which is, again, a bit of a disappointment given the fact that Richard Thompson is on board. But I think the idea was to keep the focus on the songs rather than on soloists.