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David Kidman of Folk and Roots

reviews A Celebration of Old England by Anna Shannon

I’ve sung Anna’s praises for a number of years now, and yet each successive album release has astounded me anew with its sheer quality. Not only is Anna an exceedingly talented singer and musician (every new CD provides further instances of her intense, and seemingly ever-expanding, instrumental prowess – here guitars, fiddle, oboe, soprano sax, flute, recorders, chanter, shruti-box, bowed psaltery and an array of percussion!), but she’s also an enviably prolific songwriter. I couldn’t imagine Anna surpassing her brilliant 2014 Horses, Beasts And Fairytales album, yet now, barely 15 months later, she’s come up with eleven brand new songs that are almost certainly the equal of those on that excellent record. This latest collection sees Anna completely immersing herself in the folk tradition, and the album’s title really does reflect its contents, especially the word “celebration” which both sets the tone and represents a statement of intent. Virtually every one of these new songs could easily pass for an authentic traditional song, proving Anna’s astute feel for the nature of its language and its indigenous phrasing and dynamics, and her gift for reproducing these elements naturally without fear of being accused of pastiche. Anna’s own rural country lifestyle, as well as her life-philosophy and personal outlook, are all factors that greatly inform her songs, for she conveys an inborn practical sympathy with their subjects. These may well be humble creatures (The Sheep They Bide, Birthing The Plough), although Anna also displays keen insight into humanity itself (The Craftsmen Of Old England, Old Bob & The Poacher), and especially gypsy folk (The Traveller’s Ways). Whatever the topic, though, and whatever the mood (rousing chorus Old Jonny Barley or ballad-tale Polly Cooper and Little Bright Bird), Anna delivers a melody to remember. Anna’s singing style is steeped in the traditional idiom too – sturdy and assured, with a solid strength and power throughout the whole range of her voice – while she’s also blessed with an uncanny ability to supply her own vivacious and well-coordinated harmonies (notably on the accomplished a cappella essay Ways Of The Hunting). A number of tracks betray Anna’s penchant for medieval/early music: Harbinger’s March, the delicate courtly song Lady Of Grace, the virtuoso recorder showpiece The Gilded Cage, and a respectable (and respectful) cover of Gaudete (which Anna declares her “favourite of all time”!). It’s paying the biggest compliment to Anna that she’s now signed to the WildGoose label, whose boss Doug Bailey has managed to bring out even more of her latent musicianly versatility while ensuring that the focus remains on her individual and distinctive voice (in the literal as well as songwriting sense). Yes, Anna’s latest achievement is every bit as much a celebration of her impressive breadth of talent as it is of old England itself.