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David Kidman of Stirrings

reviews Fenlandia by Mary Humphreys & Anahata

Cards on the table first: Mary and Anahata are two of my very favourite performers, who bring to everything they do a touch of pure magic; so I'm obviously biased! But they're also folks of unerring good taste and integrity who just happen to be highly skilled at their trade - ie researching, unearthing and bringing into wider currency through their vital performances largely forgotten or unknown songs (and tunes) from the English tradition.

Mary is blessed with a wonderfully expressive, powerfully earthy singing voice, accompanying herself characterfully on English concertina, or sometimes banjo, whereas partner Anahata's superbly judged playing and instrumental arrangements (employing melodeons, concertinas and/or cello in various permutations) are both creative, exceedingly tasteful and uncommonly musical. Fenlandia is the duo's third album together for WiIdGoose, and while I couldn't quite claim (yet) that it's the best of the three (give it time!) it's certainly immensely satisfying in every respect, and (sticking my head above the parapet here) one of the finest albums in the entire WiIdGoose catalogue (and there've been a few crackers of late).

Actually, the title may be puzzling if no explanation is proffered. For does it imply a Sibelian connection I wonder? (or does this perhaps only reflect the software package used to notate the music?) No, it's intended to highlight the album's principal focus, on songs collected by Ella Bull of Cottenham near Cambridge (situated in the area of East Anglia known as The Fens) from Charlotte Few, a domestic servant. This stated geographical focus is a trifle misleading however, since only five of the album's 14 tracks are actually identified as coming from that source, the remainder emanating from other corners of England (and there's even a tune from Wales). No matter, though, when the material's as uniquely interesting and well-performed as this!

The duo's oft-mentioned penchant for less usual versions of songs comes to the fore here with 'Polly Vaughan' and 'Lord Thomas & Fair Eleanor', also 'Elwina Of Waterloo', a song which Mary rather fetchingly terms 'the Mills & Boon version of the Battle'. Two other particularly refreshing delights here are `Hey Down Derry' (a deliciously different version of 'An Old Man Came Courting Me', which is spiced up even further by the interpolation of an entirely apposite Playford tune), and 'The Cuckoo And The Nightingale', a never-before-recorded version of 'Catch Me If You Can', which proves a real discovery. The twin poles of Mary's special vocal expertise are exemplified on this album, on one hand by her well-fashioned unaccompanied rendition of the Child ballad 'Lucy Wan' (among the finest I've heard), where she keeps a steady hand on the flow of the narrative while maintaining both our interest and a close involvement in the unfolding tale, and on the other hand by the irresistible lustiness of her delivery of rousing chorus songs like 'We'll Be All Smiles Tonight'.

Although songs are the prime directive of Fenlandia, the CD contains four instrumental tracks that don't deserve to be skipped (except gaily in time to the music perhaps!). These are jolly good fun, yet also display a considerable amount of ingenuity in some often quite complex arrangements of a type that you don't often encounter in performances of "mere tunes". There's plenty of variety, with a jaunty pair of breakdowns, a set of Welsh jigs, and a gorgeous rendition of the stately 18th century country dance 'Sun Assembly'. On the latter, and on an occasional basis elsewhere on the CD, Mary and Anahata are joined by fellow members of their band Fendragon, Dave and Gina Holland, on fiddle, hurdy gurdy and sundry wind instruments, and the combined effect is both rumbustious and spellbinding.

For both Mary and Anahata clearly wholeheartedly relish these songs and tunes, and their enthusiasm and togetherness is both overwhelming and utterly infectious. There really are no finer advocates for the power and appeal of unadulterated, unamplified traditional music, and Fenlandia is a real feelgood release