June Tabor,
At the Wood's Heart
(Topic, 2005)

Like Martin Carthy, her colleague on the British folk scene, June Tabor pursues her artistic vision with little -- let's revise that to practically no -- concession to popular taste. You have to come to her, even if you have to work to get there. She is a major, if difficult, sometimes distant, artist.

Still, maybe it's just me -- I've been listening to Tabor since her first LPs in the mid-1970s -- or perhaps At the Wood's Heart really is a bit friendlier than the typical austere Tabor effort. I suppose that after all this time in Tabor's aural company, I am in no position to judge, except to add that while I respect everything Tabor does, I like this recording more than some. If you have any taste for well-crafted, emotionally complex and intensely affecting music -- in any genre -- this recording ought to be in your collection.

Tabor's voice is a distinctive, dark contralto, not like anybody else's in folk music, the production -- as always -- a sophisticated minimalism with jazz and classical touches. Not really much like anything from tradition, though Tabor's repertoire consists mostly of old lyric songs and ballads, as often as not in obscure variants unearthed in the course of Tabor's archaeological digs in arcane texts and field recordings.

Even so, Heart opens on a splendid note with an unusual-for-Tabor open-hearted reading of the wonderful "Banks of the Sweet Primroses," perhaps best known from the long-ago Fairport Convention recording but a staple of the English revivalist repertoire even before then. It has long been my contention that any time a song opens with the refrain "As I walked out...," you may be secure in the expectation that what follows will satisfy on all counts. She resurrects another revival warhorse, "She's Like the Swallow," but this version, framed in Huw Warren's piano and Mark Lockheart's almost apparitional saxophone sound, is quite something else. You will probably not recall that you have heard this song before.

Most of the other cuts are less familiar, for example the 16th-Century "Ah! The Sighs," given a patented moody Tabor reading, set against Warren's always richly understated piano. "Now Welcome Summer" takes a Geoffrey Chaucer poem and sets it to a couple of traditional melodies. Among the handful of nontraditional pieces are the Duke Ellington standard "Do Nothing 'Til You Hear from Me" -- Tabor has always had a taste for jazz-inflected material from the American Songbook -- and the dependable Bill Caddick's "The Cloud Factory," more like a musical short story than a ballad. The excellent British guitarist and longtime Tabor accompanist Martin Simpson joins her in a perfect reading of Anna McGarrigle's grandly lyrical weeper "Heart Like a Wheel."

by Jerome Clark
27 May 2006

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