This review is written by Dai Woosnam, email@example.com, 12/05
This is an important album of songs written by England's
greatest living songwriter. Best songwriter not just in the Folk genre,
but probably in ANY you want to name. So it is vital that I attempt in
this review to do it justice: for I doubt if a more significant album
will have been released all this year.
Let me say at the outset that I yield to nobody in my admiration of Leon's oeuvre. That trendy last word incidentally is not a word I would have used the first time I saw him perform in public. It was 30 years ago at the Royal Festival Hall and the London Communist Party had hired it one Sunday morning/afternoon for an event-and-a half.
I ought to remember the day for the finest political speech I ever heard in my life (from the great Jimmy Reid, the Govan shipyard workers' organiser).
But it was the musical element of the day that really stays with me.
No, I don't mean when we all stood, clenched fists in the air, to sing The Internationale. That was de rigueur at such events, and a bit passé even to the most fervent of fellow travellers. No, it was something else.
Up to the mike comes this fellow who looked like a bank clerk caught in the headlights … and sang like one. And I was smitten. You see, he was singing for you and me. Indeed, he seemed to BE, you and me. The very antithesis of the extrovert “show” singer. He was indeed the man on the Clapham omnibus.
Except his songs were FAR from ordinary. Rather, they were about as EXTRAordinary as they came. And down the years I have come to revere much of his body of work.
Which brings us to this latest album, and a very good album it is. But let me first explain the raison d'être for it. Better still, I will let Leon do it. He says in his liner notes: “For over 40 years, I've been writing songs and sending them out into the world through the medium of my own rather limited voice [so] it occurred to me that, why not a whole album of other singers interpreting my songs?”
Well, he has assembled a stellar cast of performers (and assuredly NONE of them has a “limited voice”!), and asked them to pick any song they liked, with the proviso that they had not previously recorded the song. And pick an interesting selection of his songs they indeed do: and best of all, they have all latched on to the key word in his request. They have INTERPRETED the songs, and not just COVERED them (in a “Tonight Matthew, I am Leon Rosselson” style).
Some of the interpretations are very bold: none bolder than David Campbell's “Stand Up For Judas”. Almost every track pays its rent on the album, but my highlights were Elizabeth Mansfield's gloriously uninhibited “Don't Get Married Girls”, Janet Russell's deeply moving “Song Of The Olive Tree”, Roy Bailey's “William” and one more number. (In fact that “one more” was a version of his most popular song, “The World Turned Upside Down”.)
Now I thought the chewing gum may have lost its flavour here. After loving Leon's version, then Dick Gaughan's and then Billy Bragg's and several others (all some years ago now), I could have bet my shirt that yet another singer would not have got an inch-more-mileage out of it. But had I done so, I would have been bare-chested now. For Robb Johnston comes at the song with real imagination, and really delivers.
Of course the 15 songs are not quite the same 15 that I would have picked: it is impossible to totally please everyone. (And anyway it is not supposed to be “Leon's 15 greatest songs”: had they been, then songs like “That's Not The Way It's Got To Be” and my-all-time favourite Rosselson song “Do You Remember?” would surely have featured.)
And a word must be said about the magnificent sound quality. Although the different artistes were recorded in various studios up and down the land, one senses that their recording engineers have really pushed the boat out, and the final CD mastering by Neil Thorn at Running Frog Studio, Windsor would appear to be a triumph, for there is no sense of any disparate recording venues.
But finally, despite all these plaudits, I feel compelled to say that nobody sings Rosselson like Rosselson. What gives his songs their extra potency is that his next-door-neighbour's voice makes us concentrate on the SONG and not the singer. Here with these 15 solid-to-very fine voices, there is the occasional tendency for us to marvel at the VOICE, at the expense of marvelling at the SONG.
It brings to mind an album of the songs of the late Jacques Brel sung by Scott Walker. What a great voice that American had! But nobody sang Brel's songs better than the Belgian, even though he was blessed with a quarter of Walker's vocal gift from God.
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