Tom Bliss The Whisper (Slipjig)
Years ago, my wife, who is French, would travel home from work by a tortuous route that covered much of County Durham. It started with a lift from Shildon to Chester-le-Street (not passing Pity Me, but that's another story), and continued with at least one bus on to Stanley and finally to Hobson (where we lived, though not necessarily by choice). One evening, the bus that normally said "Stanley" said "No Place" instead. I leave it to the reader's imagination to think about the kind of conversation that ensued between young French lass and grumpy north-west Durham bus conductor.
What our ancestors chose to call some of the small towns and villages of England is a joy to behold. I used to opt for the A1 for journeys back north at least partly because the exits offered a higher standard of place name than the M1.
Tom Bliss was gripped by similar thoughts as he drove up and down the country smiling at the signposts as they flashed by. One in particular, pointing the way towards the Oxfordshire villages of Mixbury and Evenly, read to him rather like an extract from a Chaucerian cookbook.
With his highly developed imagination and sense of fun, Bliss proceeded not to those villages but to the pages of a good gazetteer, dug out a long list of candidates and turned his own amusement into a splendid poem in which dozens of place names are arranged to form the ingredients and instructions of a wonderful recipe.
If The Whisper contained nothing else, it would be worth the entrance fee of whatever the CD costs. In fact, there is much, much more, from the strident marching beat of Sound the Drum to the understated beauty of The Sin of Mary Prout, a Victorian mum driven by post-natal depression, which no court then recognised, to kill her baby daughter.
If you like intelligent songs, handsomely sung and accompanied, pleasant instrumental pieces and the dry humour of a natural stand-up comic with perfect timing, this may well be the one to spend that unused Christmas voucher on.
What I most admire about Brian Peters’s new album of Child ballads is that he makes it all sound so easy. He sings these compelling songs covering all that is good and evil, inspirational and sinister, about the human condition as if there were nothing simpler in the world. Some of us have to put a huge amount of effort into sounding dreadful. The ballads collected in the 19th century would not be to everyone’s taste. Yet there is - or perhaps only appears to be - an engaging simplicity about Peters’s approach, and abundant warmth and expression in his voice, making this easy to listen to without tarnishing it with the perjorative baggage of the easy listening tag. The harshest critic would have to look hard for a weak aspect to this album. Peters finds the songs fascinating, and its shows. He makes them fascinating, in turn, to the listener, and this occurs on more than one level. It is not merely music, good though that music is; it is also a treasury of social history. Green Broom and The Golden Vanity have each had a generous number of outings in recent years, but Peters bring freshness to his interpretations and there is no temptation to fast-forward to the less familiar material. In its own way, Songs of Trial and Triumph is an authoritative but always entertaining English equivalent of Eddi Reader’s memorable reworking of the songs of Robbie Burns. I heartily commend it.