June Tabor’s last album, 2007′s Apples, signed off with a rendition of a song by Christopher Somerville called ‘Send Us A Quiet Night’, a sailor’s prayer that, in Tabor’s stunning, spare version, became a wider, universal appeal for calm and safe passage. That track now feels as much like a conclusion to Apples as an introduction to Tabor’s new release Ashore, a record that takes the sea as its thematic focus. Somerville’s song is just one of many, many tracks referencing the sea that Tabor has recorded over the years, from the ‘Admiral Benbow’ / ‘Davy Lowston’ double-bill that opens 1980′s A Cut Above to the metaphorical stormy waters traversed in Les Barker’s ‘Sudden Waves’ on 1992′s Angel Tiger. And don’t forget – who could? – her epic Child ballad ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ on 2003′s An Echo Of Hooves, which climaxes with its unfortunate hero and his fellow Scottish Lords lying “three miles off Aberdeen [and] fifty fathoms deep” on their ill-fated return voyage from Norway.
But Ashore is the first recording that Tabor has focused entirely on maritime themes. The album has its genesis in the concert that Tabor performed for Topic Records’ seventieth anniversary in 2009, and as such it’s a record that gestures backwards and forwards in her body of work, revisiting some older material from a new perspective while also producing something that feels entirely vital and fresh. Spanning centuries, the selected songs transport the listener from the Caribbean to the Shetland Islands, from the mid-Atlantic to the Plymouth docks. The result is a richly atmospheric, beautifully sequenced and, indeed, immersive experience from an artist who continues to go from strength to strength.
Working once again with her superb regular musicians – Huw Warren (piano), Mark Emerson (viola/violin), Andy Cutting (diatonic accordion) and Tim Harries (double bass) – Tabor continues to hone her jazz and classical-inflected approach to traditional and contemporary material on Ashore. Even as she’s moved far beyond unaccompanied singing, her aesthetic has still tended towards sparsity, and there’s a particularly gorgeous measured spaciousness to the new album’s arrangements, one which allows every single note to resonate, and of course leaves plenty of space for Tabor’s unmistakable vocals, with their spell-binding mixture of subtle nuance and arresting command. The album’s first track is familiar: Ian Telfer’s ‘Finisterre’, which Tabor first performed on 1990s’ Freedom & Rain, her collaboration album with the Oyster Band. But the new treatment, building gradually from Cutting’s accordion playing, subtly shifts the song into another direction and adds a new level of mystery to the piece. A similarly effective makeover is performed on Cyril Tawney’s ‘The Grey Funnel Line’ (first heard on the first Silly Sisters album), which gains fresh depths of wistfulness and longing here as it recounts a sailor’s decision to leave the sea.
Traditional material comes in the form of ‘The Bleacher Lassie Of Kelvinhaugh’, a broken-token ballad variant (i.e. one without a broken token) that Tabor first performed in the early days but has never committed to disc, and that gets a marvellously direct and ultimately heartwarming a cappella rendition; the transition from this track into ‘The Grey Funnel Line’ is sublime. Art-song and folk song fuse on a hauntingly spare and effective rendering of the Child ballad ‘The Great Selkie Of Sule Skerry’ which – much like ‘The Cruel Mother’ on An Echo Of Hooves – succeeds in turning the piece into an uncanny and unsettling dream sequence. As often on Tabor albums, some choice French-language material also makes its mark: ‘Le Vingt-Cinquiéme Du Mois D’Octobre’ tells of a naval battle over Gibraltar, and Tabor sets about the song with a gusto comparable to that of the troops besieging the French fleet. ‘Le Petit Navire’ – a jolly tale of cannibalism at sea – is also delivered with palpable relish.
The album’s other contemporary songs receive memorable treatments. Against Warren’s spare, jazzy piano Tabor sidles up almost nonchalantly to Elvis Costello’s iconic ‘Shipbuilding’, deftly avoiding turning the song into any more of a monument while nonetheless producing a powerful, subtly dramatic and distinctive reading. The second Tawney song, ‘The Oggie Man’, is simply exquisite, a meditation on transience on which Tabor’s dolorous vocal, Warren’s delicate piano and Harries’ understated bass conjure a marvellously misty, nostalgic ambience that evokes the softly falling rain described in the lyrics.
This attention to atmosphere is evident throughout Ashore. Combining Ronald Jamieson’s setting of a poem by Jack Renwick with a tune, ‘Vidlin Voe’, written by Jamieson’s late father Frank, ‘Winter Comes In’ creates a striking evocation of the onset of a Shetland winter, with beautiful interplay between Emerson’s violin and Cutting’s accordion. Undulating piano powerfully conveys the fate of the drowned washed up on the shore, their boots “buried below the tide,” in the chilling ‘The Brean Lament’, while two marvellously stately instrumentals – ‘Jamaica’ and ‘I’ll Go & Enlist For A Sailor’ – also add texture to the record.
But the most devastating track is saved until last. It’s Les Barker’s ‘Across The Wide Ocean’, a song based on testimonies of those evicted from their homes during the nineteenth century Highland Clearances, and a piece that Tabor has been performing live for several years. Across an epic eleven minutes and a slowly building, rich arrangement, Tabor’s extraordinary vocal – at times seething with righteous anger and indignation in the verses, then turning melancholy and reflective in the choruses – channels the anguish of a history of persecution, false promises and forced emigration. It’s a staggering performance and one of many highlights on a fine album that’s another thoroughly rewarding and accomplished addition to Tabor’s superlative catalogue.
[Topic; February 21, 2011]