Norma Waterson,
Bright Shiny Morning
(Topic, 2000)

Norma Waterson most likely can recognize a traditional song and a noteworthy ballad with her hands tied behind her back. She probably can sniff out from blocks away the best material in an old tome otherwise gathering dust on a library shelf. With a folk music career that spans 40 years of performing -- with her family as the Watersons, and with her husband, Martin Carthy, and daughter, Eliza Carthy, as Waterson: Carthy -- she also has taken the time to record her own solo albums. Bright Shiny Morning is a recent collection of traditional material featuring Waterson's strong voice along with contributions from family members and other excellent musicians, including Mary Macmaster from the Poozies. The songs come from trustworthy sources, ranging from Queen Caroline Hughes to Cecil Sharp.

"The Chaps of Cockaigny," the opening track, starts off with Waterson's voice and her husband's acoustic guitar. More instruments gradually are added, including Macmaster's electric harp, but the effect is gentle rather than overwhelming. Her daughter's backing vocals and violin lend an almost haunting quality to the song. This simple introduction is effective in that it makes it clear that this album isn't going to be filled with electric gimmicks. (The most complicated arrangement is that of the title track, which features brass instruments to help emphasize the song's mournful, yet hopeful, tone.) Eliza Carthy and Ben Ivitsky's production is straightforward and does its best to make Waterson's voice stand out as the fine instrument it is.

The entire album follows that standard. Waterson, recipient of the 2001 BBC Singer of the Year award, more or less reigns as the grand dame of British folk music. The songs she's selected here concern topics usually found in traditional music: love, sex, heartbreak and, of course, ultimately, death. There are bawdy numbers such as "Three Maids A-Milking" (a variant of "The Bird in the Bush") and "The Game of All Fours," well-known traditional numbers such as "Barbary Allen," and lesser-known pieces such as the title track, which Waterson learned while living in the West Indies. In the CD booklet, Waterson writes, "You can think that you know a song for years and, all of a sudden, be taken off guard." I had that reaction with some of the songs on this album. I'd heard other versions of them, but Waterson's renditions, with their relatively simple settings, place emphasis on the lyrics and her interpretation of them.

Bright Shiny Morning is a fine example of traditional British Isles music presented in an unpretentious, uncluttered performance. While it was recorded in 2000, it takes the listener back to years long past in terms of its simplicity and grace.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]
Rambles: 10 August 2002

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