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David Kidman of David Kidman

reviews Parallel Strands by Martin Graebe & Shan Cowan

This CD proves a not entirely unexpected delight, but not exactly in the way Iíd expected! Itís one of those typically intelligently planned WildGoose products whose title is very carefully chosen to reflect the contents through multiple layers of meaning. In this case, the provisional Two Faces Of Martin Graebe title was jettisoned in favour of parallel strands, which refers initially to the two major influences on the singing of the two featured performers Ė i.e. Martinís own songs, and songs from the collection of the pioneering Victorian song-collector Sabine Baring-Gould Ė but, as the front cover design cunningly demonstrates, many other strands and connections are woven into the aural tapestry to connect past and present, contemporary performance and composition with tradition. And often virtually seamlessly too. Martinís probably best known as a writer of songs in traditional style, though many folks know his songs without realising their composed origin. Martyn Wyndham-Read has already, and memorably, recorded the brilliantly potent From Severn, By The Somme (perhaps the jewel in Mr. Graebeís richly adorned crown), but Jack-in-the-Green, Honiton Lace and November Drinking Song are but three of his other compositions which have gained wider currency. On Parallel Strands, the first-named pair of these are revisited from Martinís earlier (1975) Folktrax cassette (along with Peterís Private Army), and these, together with a further three fine compositions, make up Martinís self-penned contingent among the CDís 16 tracks. As a singer, Martin has an interesting voice, pleasing to listen to yet also intense in its own quiet, thoughtfully expressive way. Martinís other face is as the leading researcher, writer and expert on the work of Baring-Gould; since 1992, Martin, and more recently Shan too) has been working on indexing and transcribing the original Fair Copy and rough manuscripts of the 202 songs in the Collection (currently housed in Plymouth Library), and this activity has resulted in a number of songs being recorded for the first time since their original collection, several of which crop up on this new CD. These include some unusual versions of well-known ballads (Tyburn Hillís an intriguing take on Jack Hall, and Jacky My Son is a pre-Sharp collection of Lord Randal) and a more fragmentary version (Maiden Under Willow) of the song which Mary Humphreys recorded for her Sharp Practice CD as Pride Of The Season. Itís not always clear from the booklet notes as to the origins of the tunes used, however. As for Shan, her involvement in the Baring-Gould collection has extended lately to an exploration of songs sung to Baring-Gould by women; on this disc, her own singing is confident, and characterful, personable and harmonious. Iím glad, too, that she also gets a lovely solo song on this disc (the all-too-brief The Maid And Her Swain). But in fact, the individual voices of Martin and Shan go together most persuasively, and itís a pity there arenít more acappella tracks on this CD. I understand that the original intention was to include more unaccompanied items, but a number of musician friends were so keen to help, and their contributions so well-judgedÖ well you know how it is! For how can you resist musician friends like Keith Kendrick (anglo and English concertinas), Paul Burgess (fiddle), Paul Wilson (accordion, percussion) and Jeff Gillett (guitar, mandola)?! Ė inevitably, their various contributions are vital and enriching, and theyíre augmented even further on the wonderfully er, rousing Cornish carol Rouse, Rouse by oboe, tuba and four-piece vocal chorus. Just once or twice I felt the fulsomeness of the (admittedly limited in terms of scoring) instrumental accompaniment a little too fulsome and even slightly twee in impact, as on the quite jaunty I Had Two Ships, but for the most part I found the backings genuinely enhancing and relatively unobtrusive Ė even if I felt that on one or two songs (eg Laying My Life On The Line) a backing of any kind wasnít strictly necessary. Altogether, the 16 tracks comprising this collection of songs both old and new sit most comfortably together and complement each other winningly; itís abundantly clear that Martin really has the gift for composing in the tradition. A hint of slight preciousness is perhaps not entirely avoidable on lighter material such as Martinís fox-hunting saga Sly Reynard, but here the fun doesnít wear as thin as quickly as it might in lesser hands (read voices!). My main (again in context slight) reservation about some of the material on this disc is that the principle of composing in the tradition seems to been extended a tad too far when some of the tunes Martin uses audibly bear uncanny, and not entirely fortuitous, resemblance to those accepted on, or commonly associated with, other songs in the folk corpus (in this respect, Peterís Private Army carries overtones of Blackleg Miner, Maiden Under Willow of that Cornish bellringing song Ė you know the one Iím sure! Ė and Honiton Lace resonances of a number of different songs from Month Of January out). But all in all, this is a disc replete with accessible performances of often stimulating material that transcends mere academic interest, and whereby good songs and good company provide much that is abundantly charming alongside a modicum of deeper, more thought-provoking moments.