Published Nov 21, 2016Being a song catcher is it's own art, different from being a songwriter, but quite as necessary. Shirley Collins' fifties and sixties recordings of British and North American folksongs are still crucial listening for fans of traditional, often horror-tinged ballads. Lodestar is true to Collins' roots. These are songs of murder and revenge, not tame pastoral fantasies. Some ballads are heartrending, some, darkly funny, some gruesome. And death is a never far away, sometimes as in "Death and the Lady," it's even a character in the story. Collins sounds like a fairy-tale grandmother, something out of an Angela Carter book, telling thrillingly scary stories that impart useful warnings of strange men in the woods.
Collins ' strengths have always been in song selection and in performance. Backhanded compliment it may be, but she has the sort of singing voice that loses nothing with age. She's always depended on phrasing over tone, and doesn't sound much different than she did 50 years ago. The same goes for the instruments; Lodestar is true to the song catcher aesthetic of mid-century folk music. It sounds like it was recorded on a reel-to-reel in Collins' front room. You can clearly hear where Collins takes a breath, and the squeak of strings played close to the mic.
This is Collins' first album in nearly 40 years. Apocryphally, she lost her voice when her husband left her for another woman, which frankly sounds like the plot of one of her tragic ballads. And yet, not all is gloomy. The album contains a version of "Pretty Polly", not the Appalachian murder ballad of the same name, but the one about the girl who dresses as a soldier to follow her sweetheart. After the war, Polly "…Lives at her ease/She goes out when she's ready, returns when she please" which is about as happy an ending a girl in a ballad could have. (Domino)