Contemporary folk revivalists assemble to pay tribute to one of the British folk revival’s leading lights, Shirley Collins.
Taking this collections’ title at face value, these songs serve as merely starting points for contemporary artists to inject themselves, paying homage while making them wholly their own. While artist-specific tribute collections are often scattershot and full of clear high points and others that miss the mark. Approaching Shirley Inspired as just that, a collection of Shirley Collins compositions rendered in a variety styles, from the traditional to more abstract, its three discs present a challenging listen that finds its subject’s material twisted and reshaped in a whole manner of contemporary idioms, each of which takes Collins’ traditional folk balladry as its source material and furthers it well beyond where she could have perhaps ever imagined.
But it’s done so with the requisite reverence often afforded musical icons whose catalog or mere presence casts a long shadow over a specific genre. In the case of Shirley Collins, British folk music would arguably not be what it is today without her massive contributions to the genre’s mid-20th century revival. With her sister Dolly on piano and haunting organ, Collins helped return the music to its roots, using her unfettered, matter-of-fact singing style to help revitalize interest the country’s dying folk tradition. Together, their sparse recordings proved highly influential.
With the release of 1969’s Anthems in Eden, Collins almost single-handedly reshaped the trajectory of the British folk revival. Using medieval instrumentation that eschewed the then dominant guitar, Collins instead relied on more traditional notions of England’s rich folk music history. Following its release, other prominent folk revivalists, including those like Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and Pentagle who tended more towards the rock spectrum, begin incorporating previously esoteric and forgotten instruments like the sacbut, crumhorn and rebec.
So what makes Shirley Inspired such an interesting take on Collins’ vast catalog is that it sticks largely to contemporary instrumentation, supplemented by the ever-present acoustic guitar. What made her initial recordings so impactful was her reimaging of the folk idiom in a far more traditionalist take. To hear these songs returned to guitar-based performances somewhat minimizes Collins’ original contributions to further renewed interest in the music of her country.
In this, few take a more modernist, almost avant garde approach to Collins’ rich catalog that goes beyond the standard folk tropes. Among these, former Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo’s swirling, epic reading of “The Plains of Waterloo” is a slow burn of feedback and decay, complimented by Ranaldo’s nasally, reverbed vocals. It stands in sharp contrast to the other, largely acoustic performances that dominate the album. Equally ironic, many of these performances are based on the performers vocal skills, something Collins doesn’t necessarily lack, but certainly places less emphasis on than some of the more over-the-top contempo-folk readings here (Angel Olsen’s hauntingly sparse “The Blacksmith” in particular).
Throughout, Inspired’s main appeal is the shear breadth of contemporary folk talent, from both the United Kingdom and United States, on display (Meg Baird, Josephine Foster, Sally Timms, MV & EE, and Alasdair Roberts to name but a few). Modern-day British folk rock revivalists Trembling Bells continue their delightful winning streak with one of the heavier performances here on “Richie’s Story,” while Johnny Flynn delivers a stark, guitar and vocal reading of “Rambleaway.” On “The Murder of Maria Marten,” Ela Stiles gets closest to the original impact of the Collins’ sisters hauntingly sparse arrangements on Anthems in Eden. With her fluttering, folk-inflected vocals and brooding, medieval choral backing, it’s a clear high point on an album full of unique performances. Similarly, Stuart Estell’s unadorned “Just As The Tide Was Flowing” follows a similar approach, adhering more to Collins’ own aesthetic than that of the majority of his contemporaries.
If nothing else, Shirley Inspired provides an ideal 21st century entry point into a vast riches of traditional British folk music. Should the names attached draw the initial interest to this collection, the quality of the material and variety of arrangements and interpretations will hold the listener’s attention across the more than three hours of rich material here.