Something very close to my heart and one of the outstanding releases every year is the annual Folk Awards’ compilation. Its proud claim, up until this year is that it gathers all of the runners and riders, with a track from each. Regrettably Laura Marling’s people couldn’t see the merit in it, so despite her nomination for 2011, we have our first faller. Never mind, we still wish her well. What you do get, however, for a very modest price, is two discs, 27 tracks and a great overview of the folk scene as it stands. With any awards you naturally have a degree of filtering, but I’d immediately say that this is a hugely enjoyable collection. Names both familiar and new contribute some outstanding music, full of spark and variety and the inclusion of the six Young Folk Award nominees into the running order (they used to have a disc to themselves) shows great promise for the future. But from the opening salvo of Bellowhead’s New York Girls to the closing of Jonny & Lucy’s Hares On The Mountain, there’s a wealth of music to satisfy the fan and engage the curious, converting a few of the latter along the way.
There is a great flow to the listening experience, doubtless helped by kicking off with two of my personal favourites, the aforementioned New York Girls and Heidi Talbot’s Willie Taylor, the latter’s poise and subtle guitar figure is a perfect foil to the opening rambunctiousness. Eliza and Norma follow, from what was another of the critic’s picks of the year the marvelous Gift album, with a cracking version of Poor Wayfaring Stanger. As venerable as that duo are in folk circles, Breabach are fresh faced and their youthful enthusiasm propels a medley of pipe tunes with dizzying speed that would have me, despite a lingering reticence towards the drone and squall, heading straight for the mosh-pit.
This sets up an interesting sequence as the a cappella of Coope, Boyes & Simpson pegs things back again. Anyone in any doubt of the merit of unaccompanied singing should take deep draught of this and Fisherman’s Friends on disc 2. The most fundamental of musical instruments can still be the most affecting and you’ll be off looking for a choir to join before you know it, unless of course, like me, you’re blessed with a voice designed to strip paint. I digress, as C, B & S gives way to the fairy-dust sprinkled, layering of Emily Portman’s Stick Stock. Macabre in the best tradition of the tradition, this quirky little gem is one of Emily’s own and presages the excellent original compositions that make up the bulk of the second half of disc one.
Chris Wood’s Hollow Point is as skilful a bit of song writing as you will ever come across, relating the bare facts of the killing of John Charles Menezes, made all the more powerful by letting the events speak for themselves. Nancy Kerr’s Queen Of Waters is breezy by contrast and with a shaft of that Twice Reflected Sun at its heart is almost impossibly lovely, as she and James Fagan knit music as fine as a cashmere vest. Richard Thompson is enjoying a late blooming and recognition that is well overdue. A Brother Slips Away is a simple, effective eulogy and typical of the high standards of Dream Attic his first Top 20 album – ever!! Whether While & Matthews will ever enjoy such lofty chart antics seems unlikely, but Chris and Julie are exceptional writers and singers. Rock Of Gelt skillfully transports us back to the building of Hadrian’s Wall from the perspective of an ordinary soldier in vivd technicolour.
Disc two is just as fine and balances the traditional with the new, the instrumental and the song equally well. Few regulars will be in any doubt as to my affection for the work of Megson, Kris Drever, Fay Hield, The Unthanks or Jonny Kearney & Lucy Farrell and although Andy Cutting’s name is more familiar as a sideman, his box playing is wonderfully fleet and the tune set from his self titled solo album is outstanding. But in truth all tracks add to the mix and offer something exciting be it Ewan McLennan’s exceptional guitar technique, or The Demon Barbers’ beefed- up-Bellamy derived Captain Ward. The latter are a great live act and worthy catching wherever you can. As for this double disc set, well you’d be a fool not to. This is the seventh such compilation as well and it’s fascinating to plot the shifting trends and each year has it’s undoubted highlights, but overall the standard is amazingly consistent. You can be assured that the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards are a quality marque.