Formed by English folk scene stalwart Ashley Hutchings when The Albion Band finally called it quits after 32 years, the intention of the new project was to adopt an acoustic sound with a more focused approach to the range of material and a less fluid line-up. While, over the course of its lifetime, the Albions had a somewhat floating membership (some 140 musicians all told), this would have a small, but permanent roster. Initially comprising Hutchings and young, upcoming musician and songwriters, Ruth Angell, Jo Hamilton and Mark Hutchinson, the latter eventually replaced by Joe Topping.
Unfortunately, rather more sophisticated and not easy to pigeon-hole, the band found it difficult to build a following to match the critical appreciation. As such, they have, to date, only released two studio albums, the last in 2006, although that didn’t prevent a ‘Best Of’ appearing in 2010.
This is another compilation, duplicating two numbers (Looking For A Change and Fortune Never Sleeps) from its predecessor and adding a further seven from those previously available, among them The First Europeans, Angell’s violin showcase instrumental Gypsy Jigg and the epic Those Broad Shoulders featuring her and Hamilton’s twinned vocals.
The remaining six numbers are all previously unreleased, though, since there’s no track credits, not necessarily newly recorded. Certainly, eight minute opener Weather, a driving folk rock number with several time signature shifts, harks back to the Hutchinson days (he’s listed as one of the writers), though (other than a vague note about undated recordings at High Barn Studios) the provenance of the others is unknown. Topping has the writing credit and takes lead on the steadily building ballad Would You Still Be Here?, an outstanding track which, if not a recent recording, certainly should have never taken so long to find liberation.
The four remaining new numbers are all loaded at the end, beginning with the gentle Angell/Hutchings penned trad-styled Well-dressing Song, moving on to Hamilton and Hutchings’ lilting mandolin-accompanied swayer The Outside World on which all voices join forces, a bluesy cover of Pete Seeger’s Big Muddy with Topping on harmonica, guest Ali McMillan on djembe and everyone taking a turn on lead vocal, and, finally, another contribution from Jo and Ashley in the form of the lullabying One-eyed Owl with its warm (synthesised?) brass and cinematic string arrangement.
Openly admitting they’ve never had national airplay, the accompanying press release calls them the folk scene’s best kept secret and hopes that the time may be right for a new audience to discover them. Hutchings undoubtedly aware of the connotation, the title’s taken from Falstaff’s line in Henry IV Part 2, a weary recognition that their best days are behind them and the end is closing in. Hopefully, to borrow another quote from Shakespeare’s History plays, there’s still time to go once more unto the breach.
Review by: Mike Davies
Released on Talking Elephant Records, out now