Maddy Prior,
(Park Records, 1999)

A good friend, who also is a long-time Maddy Prior fan, told me after seeing Prior live about a year-and-a-half ago that while she still loved Prior's voice, she wasn't sure about Prior's recent musical direction.

She's not the only one expressing doubts. I've heard other friends and even read some reviews that express concerns about some of her new material. Of course, I've read other reviews and heard other comments that negate those unsure thoughts. Now, I suppose I should pause and state my usual Maddy Prior disclaimer: I probably could be happy listening to her sing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" a capella thirty-seven times in a row because I know that her voice would add emotions to that nursery rhyme that I'd not noticed previously.

Therefore, my approach to her latest release, Ravenchild, is tempered by a few doubters on one hand and the fact that I'm an avid fan on the other. Here goes.

Back in the early '90s, Prior was approached to write a song cycle regarding the mythology of hares for a British television documentary. (Those songs appear on her 1993 release, Year.) That same group of people more recently asked her tackle ravens; hence, the song cycle, "In the Company of Ravens," that gives Ravenchild its name.

The album, however, does not open with the raven songs. The drumbeats to "Twankydillo," a song that Prior says she has known for years and believes "comes from the singing of the Copper Family of Sussex," is the first track. I am a sucker for a good opening rhythmic drumbeat; I was taken in immediately. I also like the Victorian-era song's fun (Prior explains that "twanky" was Victorian slang for gin). Prior is in excellent voice as she invites us to join in the merriment.

The pace slows down, however, with a three-song collection, "With Napoleon in Russia." Although all three songs -- "Boney," "Scorched Earth" and "Loot" -- are incredibly interesting lyric-wise (Prior wrote the words to traditional tunes), I lost the intensity and passion I'd felt earlier. It wasn't the slow pace that bothered me. "Bold Poachers," the disc's second track, is a slow and somber traditional ballad about three brothers caught poaching and their sad ends, and I enjoyed Prior's clarion voice against the starkness of Nick Holland's piano.

Perhaps it's because I felt that the "Napoleon" set held such promise. Prior's voice is muted against a distant-sounding flute and drum for the nursery chant-like "Boney," and it really left me expecting so much that "Scorched Earth" was almost a letdown. The lyrics tell of Napoleon's defeat in Russia, yet Prior's voice felt constrained. "Loot" hit more of its potential, but I wondered about its instrumentation -- what more or less could have been done to make the song stronger. I did, however, enjoy how the Troy Donockley's uilleann pipes entered as her voice faded.

Prior's contemporary version of the traditional "The Rigs of Time," is quite fun. Her newly-written and politically-aware lyrics, particularly those about hypermarkets sending small businesses to bankruptcy court, were cynically appealing and very timely.

"In the Company of Ravens," though, truly is the album's masterpiece. On "Young Bloods," in particular, the second song in the cycle, Prior's voice seems truly free; it became one of the adolescent ravens she was describing as her voice twisted and curved on lines such as:

We're shrewd and clever
At the carcass we snatch
Then flee with our catch
We're the young bloods

and hits a dramatic crescendo on the chorus. Prior often can tell a story merely with her voice; words aren't always necessary, and that ability shines through on this song cycle, particularly on "Young Bloods," "The Masts of Morrigan" and "Rich Pickings." That last song features verses with an almost rap-like rhythm, which while it may seem quite unusual for Prior works well. "Dance on the Mind" allows her voice to soar with the ravens.

Ravenchild does not end with the raven cycle, however. Instead, Prior closes with a stark version of the traditional "Great Silkie of Sules Skerry," an "eerie ballad from the Shetland Isles," as she terms this sad song about a sealman. The synthesizer and Prior's voice team to draw out the supernatural atmosphere and to help the listener imagine the song's setting.

Thus, the disc ends as it begins: on a very strong note. It's not that any of the songs nor their instrumental arrangements are bad; it's more that sometimes they simply don't sound as powerful as they could be, which makes them seem weak. I have seen Prior perform this material live and realize that once her emotional facial and body language is added to the mix, all of the songs grow in strength -- the "lesser" songs become fuller, and the already-strong pieces simply take off. The raven song cycle is very well researched (she cites Bernd Heinrich's book Ravens in Winter as a source), and I enjoyed learning about ravens in both folklore and "real life" from the songs and her booklet notes as well as hearing searing emotional vocals as her voice flew with the ravens.

What's the final verdict? Well, I like Prior's "new" direction. I personally don't think that it's all that new anyhow. Her solo sound hasn't tended to duplicate her efforts with a band (Steeleye Span, Carnival Band) nor even with a duo (her work with Tim Hart, for example), which probably is as it should be. Prior's solo work has permitted her to handle traditional material in a different manner than she might have with Steeleye Span, as well as giving her an outlet for her own frequently evocative material. While I understand that other fans may wish for more of a Steeleye sound, I've enjoyed her solo efforts and would not mind a future album devoted entirely to songs of animal mythology/folklore. Let's see. She's researched hares and ravens already -- what could be next?

[ by Ellen Rawson ]

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