Graded on a Curve: Shirley Collins,
Shirley Inspired

Great artists assert their influence in numerous ways. In the example of Shirley Collins, the recipe for lasting relevance derives from prodigious if astutely unembellished vocal talent and a keen insight into folk tradition. In terms of wedding the past to the future in the eternal present, Collins is extremely valuable, and for evidence one need look no further than Shirley Inspired, a whopping and wide-ranging tribute compilation assembled by Earth Recordings on three vinyl discs just in time for Record Store Day. Any heavy-duty folk nut should be pining to pony up, and as the proceeds go directly to the production of a film on Collins’ life, the collection’s benefits are especially worthwhile.

Born in 1935, Shirley Elizabeth Collins stands amongst the giants of 20th century folk, though listeners unversed in the British streams of the style may know of her only implicitly; in 1959, prior to commencing her recording career, she accompanied Alan Lomax on a particularly productive song-collecting tour of the US south, the indispensable folklorist back in the States after the quashing of the Red Scare Witch Hunts.

But Collins’ primary importance stems from her own music, and those having stiff-armed Brit-folk aside thinking it the milieu of pennywhistles, jig marathons, and gallivanting around maypoles should pay her stuff some mind; Sweet England, her ’59 debut for British Argo is cool, but things really take off with Folk Roots, New Routes, a ’64 collaboration with Brit guitarist Davey Graham for Decca, and continue through her next two solo efforts, ‘67’s The Sweet Primroses for Topic and ‘68’s masterful The Power of the True Love Knot for Polydor, both albums cut beside her older sister Dolly on pipe organ.

Even better were ‘69’s Anthems of Eden and ‘70’s Love, Death and the Lady, the siblings receiving equal billing as a part of EMI Harvest’s still astounding roundup of late-‘60’s/early-‘70s British sounds. Naturally there are more nuggets to be found in Collins’ body of work, but the material outlined above sets a solid course for the curious novice.

As 3 LPs gathering 34 readings of songs associated with Collins, Shirley Inspired is rather plainly not the prime avenue for the greenhorn to embark. Instead, it’s a rich banquet for the converted providing exhaustive but not exhausting testimony to the extent of her impact, the contributors mostly much younger and often from scenes where Collins’ essence is shared as a doorway connecting history and vitality.

Of course, certain musicians corralled here have attained larger profiles than others, and a combination of these extremes opens up the set, Will Oldham appearing under his recurring guise of Bonnie Billie in consort with the Chicago band Bitchin Bajas, the pairing approaching “Pretty Saro” as a lament and enveloping it in an aura of drone.

It’s a fine beginning, though I’m more taken by the gorgeous rendition of “Richie Story” from Oldham collaborators Trembling Bells. So far so not unexpected, but then comes the duo of Brit comedian Stewart Lee and Stuart Estell tackling “Polly on the Shore, Lee singing and playing guitar with his versatile partner on concertina.

It’s a modest and likeable track followed by the nimble urgency of singer-guitarist Johnny Flynn on “Rambleaway,” and it leads into side one’s most stylistically divergent entry, Lee Ranaldo’s extended feedback-infused interpretation of “Plains of Waterloo,” the piece underscoring his years spent in Sonic Youth.

The breadth is indicative of sides to come; the flip starts with Alasdair Roberts and David McGuinness’ piano and vocal-driven “A Blacksmith Courted Me.” If nearer the root, the proceedings get even closer during ex-Blur guitarist Graham Coxon’s quite trad take of “Cruel Mother.” Acknowledging Collins’ significance upon psychedelia is Meg Baird, noted for her solo work but also as member of psych-folksters Espers, and her “Locks and Bolts” blends the fragile and acidic.

Contrasting with Roberts and McGuinness is Angel Olsen’s “The Blacksmith,” her recording considerably contemplative and instrumentally spare. Side two closes on Aussie Ela Stiles’ invigoration of “The Murder of Maria Marten,” the multi-tracked a cappella method carried over from her self-titled LP of last year and fitting the source exceptionally well.

Beginning side three is the return of Stuart Estell and his concertina delivering an emotional though not maudlin “Just as the Tide Was Flowing.” It precedes the full-bodied folk-rock of “Hares on the Mountain” by the team-up of Brits the Lords of Thyme and Canadian singer-guitarist Bonnie Dobson. Noted as writer of the standard “Morning Dew” and born in 1940, Dobson is a legit contemporary of Collins, and the only one to appear on Shirley Inspired.

It segues into the terrific “Polly Vaughan” by Rachael Dadd, a core of voice and banjo tweaked with strains of eccentricity, the cut fittingly chased by an edgy sojourn into “Love is Pleasing” by singular vocalist Josephine Foster, here self-accompanying on guitar. “Edi Beo” finds The Owl Service joining forces with fiddle and recorder player Laura Cannell for a swell slice of ‘60s-derived rural Brit folk-rock, and it provides a strong setup for the richness of singer-fiddler Jackie Oates’ “Banks of the Bann.”

Crying Lion are a Scottish a cappella vocal group featuring members of Trembling Bells and Muldoon’s Picnic, and their shape-note informed “Shepherd’s Arise” leads-off side four. Next is Ned Oldham’s regal plunge into “The Blacksmith,” and if one’s speculating that three versions of the tune is bordering on overkill, please realize Collins recorded it three times, each occasion offering unique charms.

And for those assuming “Poor Murdered Woman” by Norway’s black metal-spawned Ulver is the typical trib-album overreach for range, also understand that Collins guested on Current 93’s ’06 LP Black Ships ate the Sky. Ulver acquit themselves well, as do reliable hands Sally Timms and the Mini Mekons with the dirgy “Go from My Window.” Raising the quality further are the wildly loose-tunings of fingerpicker Chris Joynes’ “It Was Pleasant and Delightful,” his offering distinguished from the brightly-hued majesty of Sharron Kraus’ side-ending “Gilderoy (Heart’s Delight).”

Side five opens on Joe Murphy’s raggedly strummed and rough-throated “Adieu to All Judges and Juries,” and Slate Islands blend voice and birdsong on “Proud Maisrie” to warmly unusual effect. Northampton musician Sophie Williams goes it totally alone with the appealingly off-the-cuff vocalizing of “Charlie,” and the manner of Winchester UK’s Rozi Plain on “Long Years Ago” is mildly reminiscent of Collins’ former label mate Kevin Ayers.

Maximo Park’s Paul Smith then surfaces with “Geordie,” a spacious acoustic rumination that brings us to the stately and pristine keyboard and vocals of Olivia Chaney’s “Oxford Girl.” And Shirley Inspired’s final side contains some of the more disparate selections, a program including the gradually-paced art-pop of Orlando and Tom Furse’s “My False True Love,” and Barbarossa’s soulfully rendered synth workout “Dearest Dear.”

Belbury Poly mix Kraftwerk, library music, and to my ear a hint of the Residents on “Cambridgeshire May Carol,” and turning substantially serious is a second version of “Just as the Tide was Flowing” by Canadian experimentalist Eric Chenaux, this one a gliding ambiance of guitar and bowed strings. Norwegian singer Farao teams with British act Tunng for the meditative environs of “Never Again,” its mood shared by Shirley Inspired’s culminating track, a treatment of “Sweet England” courtesy of Findlay Brown.

Yes, simply perusing this overview might easily intimidate individuals lacking personal mileage with Collins’ discography. But if undeniably maximal, the subject is unquestionably worthy of such an intense spotlight, the side divisions and intelligent sequencing presenting this deserving tribute in easy to absorb sections.

It’s doubtful even massive converts will be soaking up Shirley Inspired uninterrupted from start to finish very often. In doing so a handful of times for this review, I was frankly surprised at how I didn’t really become fidgety until side five, and was additionally struck at how the increased eclecticism of side six helped ease the hints of impatience.

Earth Recordings surely could’ve broken this up into three volumes, but that’s not in keeping with the fundraising goal. Toward the making of The Ballad of Shirley Collins, purchasers give relatively little; in turn, they receive a whole lot. And the overall consistency, generated from palpable sincerity, is probably Shirley Inspired’s strongest attribute. It’s a truly fitting salute to an artist of immense value.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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