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MARTIN CARTHY "Signs of Life" Topic TSCD503

It's difficult to be objective about the first solo Carthy offering for 10 years. It would be easier if he'd opted to play safe and simply release another batch of fairly typical Martin Carthy material - we could then just say "another first class offering from ...". However, here we have a re-worked "Prince Heathen" and "Barbary Ellen" sitting alongside a Bee Gees' song, "Heartbreak Hotel" and Hoagy Carmichael's "Hong Kong Blues"! Is he keeping pace with 'Liza, or is he just having fun and taking risks? Who cares - this is ear-bogglingly good music.

"Prince Heathen" is a song that Martin has always held dear, once he'd fixed the ending to make it credible. This is a stripped-down-to-the-bone version, starker than the 1969 Carthy/Swarbrick version and trying, as he does, to get the ultimate take on the song - getting right to its heart. I defy anyone to get the essence of this terrible tale across more directly and forcefully than this. Martin tips his cap to Nic jones in his version of "Sir Patrick Spens". I always felt that Nic's tune carried the song better than any other and here we have it Carthyfied - with 'Liza's bouncy English fiddling behind it (another nod to Nic there) it is nothing short of perfect.

What about these quirky tracks, though? Gimmicks? Nothing could be further from the truth. I've always loved the Gibbs' "New York Mining Disaster" - a real piece of folk writing from two of the world's most successful, yet reviled pop songwriters. I didn't have the vision to try it in traditional style - but guess who did? Sparse, doomy guitar, bleak voice and eerie fiddle from 'Liza again - yes, this is a folk song, by any sensible definition and is now surely heading for the tradition. In the other oddities on this CD, Martin has some fun. He's in wonderfully bouncy form on "Hong Kong Blues", with Chris Parkinson's bluesy moothie behind him and on "Heartbreak Hotel" the latent old blueser comes out big style! In lesser hands, this could be a novelty track that would not bear re-listening. Although this is a thoroughgoing blues take on the song, it couldn't be anyone else but Carthy. The voice is a dead giveaway - but even the authentic shuffle-blues guitar has enough of Martin's "normal" style in it that it's unmistakable.

I could go on - dribbling ecstatically, track-by-track. I apologise. This is peerless music in which I can find no flaw. A service to traditional (and other music) it most certainly is. "Signs of Life"? "Sign of Genius" would be closer, but Mr Carthy would recoil from such a thought.

Alan Murray

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This album was reviewed in Issue 30 of The Living Tradition magazine.