Thursday, 23 April 2009

Flash girls

With her late sister Dolly, Shirley Collins was one of the focal points of the British Folk Revival of the mid-60’s, challenging the conventions of the genre and pushing it beyond the cliché of the acoustic guitar and the finger in the ear. On ‘Folk Roots, New Routes’ she teamed up with Davy Graham to give the world jazz-folk fusion; on ‘Anthems In Eden’, Dolly came to the fore with arrangements for early instruments, ably assisted by the great David Munrow & The Early Music Consort, and created the first British folk concept album: a suite on the terrible impact of The Great War on Merrie England, with the unusual and delicate settings perfectly evoking a land of lost content.

The follow up LP ‘Love, Death & the Lady’ (1970) is my favourite Shirley & Dolly Collins album, even though it is perhaps the bleakest recording they ever made. In fact, Shirley has said "it wasn't easy music to listen to, I'm surprised anybody bought any of it at all", and that it was recorded at a time when both sisters marriages were in trouble, and the album is imbued with uncertainty and unhappiness as a result. Dolly’s arrangements are stark and scored for a handful of mournful sounding instruments (including portative organ – the thing with the pipes in the picture, as identified by Julian, with thanks) and the songs are about death, murder, fear of desertion, capital punishment, lost love and desolation: a comprehensive catalogue of misery and misfortune.

In its original form, ‘Salisbury Plain’ tells its tragic tale using the simple expedient of Shirley singing accompanied solely by Dolly at the piano. The ‘Salisbury Plain’ presented here is the Unmann-Wittering remix, retooling or diabolical liberty, depending on your point of view. We had, as always, the best of intentions, providing no improvement on the original, but perhaps a slightly different perspective.

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