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FRANKIE ARMSTRONG "The Garden of Love" Fellside FECD144
MAGGIE HOLLAND "Getting There" Irregular Records IRR035
ROBB JOHNSON "The Big Wheel" Irregular Records IRR036
LEON ROSSELSON "Harry's Gone Fishing" Fuse Records CFCD007

If we had money and time, we could assemble the above cast in an exotic location, invite the International Arts Press and run a week long glossy sales promotion with discussions, workshops, concerts and collaborations to prove beyond all doubt how vital the cream of English contemporary singers are to a living tradition. With monetary and temporal constraints being what they are, we had better content ourselves with a multi-CD review called something like "Contemporary Singers in The Living Tradition". We can't always git what we wanna, and it's probably for the best.

Frankie Armstrong's work, as anyone who has read her wonderful biography will testify, is based far more outside than inside the club'n'festival acoustic music circuit, but you couldn't guess it from listening to "Garden of Love". Despite the presence on several tracks of John Kirkpatrick's accordion and/or Leon Rosselson's guitar, this is a celebration of the human voice in general and Frankie's voice in particular, though with as many as five other voice-boxes on display (and the typically unobtrusive-but-spot-on Fellside production) this can hardly be called a solo album. Which, given Ms. Armstrong's remarkable and successful crusade enabling people to "find" their voices, is entirely appropriate. The closing track, "The Voice That Lives Inside You", sums things up in a most satisfactory manner, while the huge breath and depth of material before it - solo big ballads, four-part Sacred Harp Hymns, the best new writing (including two of her own) - showcases perfectly what a superb musical instrument is the unique and unmistakable voice of Frankie Armstrong.

The other unmistakable female voice here is that of Maggie Holland. Like Frankie, her singing is not to everyone's taste, but the power of the words she sings, coupled with her excellent self-accompaniment (usually guitar, but some bass and an occasional banjo) make "Getting There" a compelling collection. The title comes from a recent Bob Dylan song, as in "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there..." We also have "Visions of Johanna" from his Early Years, so Maggie effectively charts the development of His Bobness from enigma to pessimist in just twelve minutes! Other contemporary songwriting giants also get a look in - Bruce Cockburn, Al Stewart, Dick Gaughan and Ralph McTell - so it is much to her credit that the brace of songs from her own pen sit on equal terms amongst such august company. "All Alone" draws on centuries of traditional ballad-forms, and "A Place Called England" celebrates indomitability and gardening in equal measure - sentiments that I wholeheartedly endorse. The rest of the writing credits (five in all) go to Robb Johnson, who also provided second guitar and all the boring but essential production stuff. I hope he is proud to have facilitated such a fine album which, by avoiding the obvious songs, has come up with some great ones.

Right on cue, proving that he can do it for himself as well as others, comes "The Big Wheel". Unlike Frankie's and Maggie's, Robb's album features the work of just one songwriter. Guess who? (Don't phone in - it's just for fun...) Fortunately, his versatility in matters of style and subject is astonishing and his prolificacy is legendary- in the insert notes for "Getting There" Maggie Holland's bewilderment is tangible as she says of one of the Johnson songs, "Robb had forgotten that he'd written it..." If this implies quantity rather than quality, think again. All 14 songs on "The Big Wheel" are carefully and skilfully crafted, bursting with memorable images and profundities, and capable of opening eyes and hearts. Which is exactly what I was going to say about "Harry's Gone Fishing", the latest in what is becoming a significant number of latest Rosselson albums about which he says rather poignantly "I expect this one to be my swan-song" or the like. All I can say on the evidence of this album is that the rumours of the death of the Rosselson muse are greatly exaggerated. Of course, Robb Johnson plays on "Harry" just as Leon plays on "Wheel", and each call in other top-notch sidesmen and women. Special mention for Saskia Tomkins (on "violin" no less) who gives Robb much pazazz, and Carthy (Musical Beast Extraordinaire) who has been adding spice to Leon's records since Old Testament times. There is great music on both albums, but ultimately it's the writing quality with must hold sway, and it seems to me that were you to cut either Johnson or Rosselson they would haemorrhage words rather than blood. My favourites from "The Big Wheel" have to be "Jubilee Gardens" or "Be Reasonable", depending on whether I'm up in arms or down in the mouth, while on "Harry's Gone Fishing" it has to be "Child Killers", making the link between schoolyard murders and US foreign policy with an incisiveness that is Leon's alone.

Retrospectives are always a bit tricky - we would ideally wish for all pre-CD albums to be re-released in their entirety so we can select our personal compilations, but all credit to "The Greening Wind", which actually comes close to my Tilston's Top Fifteen. Subtitled "A first collection of songs and instrumental pieces from 1971 to 1992", the material is drawn largely from "Of Moor And Mesa" (his first duo album with Maggie Boyle), "Life By Misadventure" (his last solo album before Maggie Boyle) and "Songs From The Dress Rehearsal" (from whence comes the title track with its stunning duelling guitars from Steve and John Renbourn). Also included are "Simplicity", which recently saw light of day on the CD release of Steve's first ever album ("An Acoustic Confusion") and a tune set from the exquisite instrumental masterpiece "Swans At Coole".

Of all the contemporary guitar heroes that were thrown up from the mid-sixties Soho scene, Steve Tilston is the most consistent, and therefore the most enduring. He is as busy as he ever was, with his writing, recording and gigging coming up as fresh, original and professional as ever. He not only produces fine work, but he presents it in its best possible light - this album overflows with superb arrangements from expert musicians. He is a great vocalist, a phenomenal guitarist and one of the best writers on the scene today. I just wish I didn't have most of these tracks already! If you haven't, "The Greening Wind" is an excellent starting point for exploring all things Tilston.

Of the four featured artists in the last issue of The Living Tradition, it is interesting to note that all of them are songwriters or tunewriters (or both!). We are members of a broad church, and each element is interdependant and essential. Don't get me started on "Root and Branch" or we'll be here all night!

Alan Rose

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This album was reviewed in Issue 36 of The Living Tradition magazine.