Never the Same
ever the Same is an excellent compilation of music from Trailer, one of a pair of interrelated seventies folk labels run by Bill Leader. His other concurrent label, Leader, was to be ethnomusicological, dealing with “roots music, performed by the people for whom it is part of their being and life,” that is, the type of records that come with exhaustive sleevenotes even on first issue. Trailer was to be, as Leader’s amusingly non-reverential booklet interview has it, “the revival stuff, the entertainment stuff… bleeding folkies, bastardised versions.” Despite this, the contents of Never the Same will seem like the real deal to all but the most ardent—the artists here were not making compromises to invite outsiders.
In the seventies, British folk was in a bind. From Donovan onwards, singer-songwriters had taken the most attractive elements of folk style—guitar tunings and techniques, vocal styles, methods of arrangement—to the pop charts but had flipped the content of the music inside out. The ostensibly communal voice of the people, the multitudinous speech of Britain’s history was replaced by a voice of biography and personal expression. One authenticity was traded for its negative, which signified the authentic also. Even folk-rock bands that had emerged from within the scene, like the Incredible String Band, were releasing records that were increasingly filled with me-generation mysticism. Except for one-off hits like Steeleye Span’s Mike Batt produced “All Around my Hat” (#5, Nov. 1975) this meant that folk crossing over as a pop music (a term folkies would no doubt have hated) was as dead as any doomed young lass in a murder ballad. Trailer’s LPs were initially distributed mail-order, direct from the label, in order to maximise profits on small runs. Ironically, the label would go bust in 1977 just as the small, agile independent label was coming to be a viable part of British music practice.
Whilst the first LP released on Trailer featured Barbara Dickson the label soon built a strong roster of musicians, many of whom are still active and important. There is a broad range of approaches and styles here, including a lot of unaccompanied music—Dorothy Elliott sings “Adieu to Judges and Juries” in a steady, measured voice that says more than almost any amount of melisma can. Dave Burland sings his two tracks solo as well, telling in a rich creamy voice of the horrors of a country boy forced to work in Leeds and Hull. Alistair Anderson plays solo concertina and Aly Bain draws out a beautiful fiddle version of “Neil Gow’s Lament for his Second Wife,” a track title verging on parody and more powerful for it.
Although the two Nic Jones guitar and vocal tracks are long, over six minutes, they demonstrate the emphasis on clarity and economy of gesture and language that unites the music on this compilation. This is something that many modern nu-wyrd-folk artistes (or whatever embarrassing title we’re appending) could learn from. One of the Nic Jones tracks is taken from Noah’s Ark Trap a 1977 LP which is continuously mixed, the outro of one track becoming the intro of the next. This must be one of the earliest examples of this approach and is a rare example of overt studio manipulation on these records as UK folk (unlike American folk, blues and country) barely recognized the transformative powers of the studio; that recording always recodes. Tony Rose provides a beautiful missionary harmonium and vocal reading of “Blackwaterside,” better known as Led Zeppelin’s re-titled Bert Jansch cop “Black Mountain Side.” This is delicate and compassionate music. (Are these words that will help sell a record in 2006? If not, why not?) Lal Waterson’s tracks are the only non-trad material here, although her album for Trailer was the only self-penned music she recorded, and also, perhaps not coincidentally, the fullest sounding due to both Richard Thompson and Martin Carthy’s guitars. Lal’s vocals are astringent, but as a way to serve the material not as an affectation. Her voice is as severe and penetrating as any no-wave recording.
Although a lot of this music is almost unknown, it is absolutely confident without being strident—tunes are played with the minimum of fuss but with maximum return, so it seems churlish that beyond the interview with Bill Leader the packaging doesn’t include a Trailer discography or even any details of which album each track originates from. Nevertheless this is a welcome spotlight on an unheralded, transitional period of UK music making, which is currently under-represented in the reissue racks.