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June Tabor – Against the Streams – Classic Music Review

againstthestreams

My recent reviews of Elvis Costello reminded me that I’m way, way behind in my plan to review more June Tabor albums and give her a coveted spot on my navigation menu.

Okay, I’ll admit that no one covets a spot on my navigation menu, but the phrase had a nice ring to it.

Costello wrote two songs for June Tabor in the early 90’s: “All This Useless Beauty” on 1992’s Angel Tiger; “I Want to Vanish” on Against the Streams in 1994. Those two albums form part of a period in her career (beginning with Aqaba in 1988) when she expanded her repertoire beyond traditional British and Irish folk music, choosing songs in multiple genres based on the quality of the songwriting. In addition to covering songs by Elvis Costello and Richard Thompson, she brought her remarkable interpretation skills to the works of a wide range of songwriters, including familiar names such as Cole Porter, Charles Mingus, Natalie Merchant and the Gershwin Brothers, and less-familiar but highly talented craftspersons like Bill Caddick, Les Barker and Maggie Holland.

Not caring much for the available but mundane English term to describe those who interpret songs (“song interpreter”), I made up a word that feels more descriptive and accurate: interpretiste, integrating “interpreter” with the French word for artist: artiste. June Tabor is a true interpretiste, not only in her remarkable ability to capture text and subtext of a given song, but in her talent for choosing works that challenge both the singer and the listener. Some of her best interpretations involve songs that present the unpleasant aspects of human life that the typical listener would rather avoid. Because most people consume music designed to make them happy and facilitate their escape from a dreary reality, June Tabor’s work is unlikely to appear on the Top 40 or anywhere in the rotation of a commercial music channel. She is one of those stubborn artists of rare courage who prefers depth to superficiality. And while she has consistently chosen songs that explore the extent of man’s inhumanity to man, she also has a wicked sense of humor and a marked sensitivity to the complex emotions surrounding human love.

Against the Streams is therefore a perfect title for an album by an artist who consistently paddles against the stream.

“Shameless Love” is an exceptionally engaging opening track, one of my favorite songs by anybody, anywhere, anytime. The song was the title track on a 1981 album by Texas singer-songwriter Eric Taylor, and while his excellent lyrics remain in place, the music underwent a complete overhaul. The unremarkable rhythm of the acoustic original was replaced with a superb arrangement by long-time collaborator and pianist Huw Warren that features a palpable syncopated rhythm driven by piano and accordion, punctuated with sharp violin thrusts at the song’s dynamic peak. Taylor’s original also lacked an identifiable melody, rather like early Dylan songs that needed more melodically-oriented artists to flesh out the tune. Here June and Huw fill in the missing pieces of the melodic puzzle to create a tune with delightful movement up and down the scale.

The lyrics spoke volumes to me as a teenager struggling with my nonconventional desires for both boys and girls, and the song still speaks to me today after years of being shamed for my kinky predilections and living (in sin!) with another adult woman. I don’t think there was a specific moment when I turned the corner, but somewhere along the path there came a point where the judgments of others stopped bothering me: I knew in my heart and soul that the love I felt was a pure as pure could get, and I wasn’t going to let anyone interfere with the free expression of such a precious feeling:

Here’s my heart and all that’s in it
Some say roses, and some say thorns
Some say I’m a fool to give it
Crazy as the moon in a midnight storm

I learned that it was crazier not to give all I am and all I had to give.

Taylor’s lyrics suggest that shameless love is achieved after the emotional release of a good cry, and I do remember a lot of good cries during the period when the light was finally dawning—cries of sadness and joy. It takes a lot of energy to repress both emotion and identity, so it follows that the dam will have to break sooner or later. June’s delivery captures the complexity of this transformation, varying from playful to passionate with a tinge of melancholy at the end, all expressed through exceptional command of build dynamics and thoughtful, deliberate phrasing.

We can be thankful that June brought her immense vocal talent to Elvis Costello’s “I Want to Vanish,” for Costello’s version (on All This Useless Beauty, released two years after June’s recording) reveals his limitations as a vocalist in a quite unflattering manner. The melodic line features a great deal of variation, especially noticeable on the near-octave leaps that appear frequently in the song. You can hear Elvis struggling to hit those notes—an effort that also throws off his breathing—but for June it’s a walk in the park. Costello told Lydia Hutchinson of Performing Songwriter that the song was not about Princess Diana as many have assumed, but “a whole story about a backwoods musician who was being pursued by these documentary filmmakers, and all these images that were being put on satellite television were in the lyric of that song.” June’s interpretation, marked by a certain elegance in delivery, does call up images of a trophy wife trapped at a banquet table laden with silver candelabras and surrounded by bores who consider her little more than an addition to the decoration:

Whether in wonder or indecent haste
You arrange the mirrors and the spools
To snare the rare and precious jewels
That were only made of paste

Listeners often choose to interpret songs in their own way, but however you interpret June Tabor’s version of “I Want to Vanish,” the excellence of the vocal performance cannot be denied.

June returns to her folk roots with “False, False” (Roud 8276), though I doubt the original featured a background as refined as Huw Warren’s supporting piano, Mark Emerson’s subtly evocative strings and Mark Lockheart’s subtle but stirring clarinet. What I love here is that while June plays the role of woman rejected for another, her vocal maintains its strength even in the saddest moments, a choice that beautifully complements the song’s narrative flow. The marvelous Peta Webb, who recorded the song on her album The Magpie’s Nest, described the song as one that “moves from tragedy to optimism in three short verses of striking poetic imagery,” and June beautifully captures that whirl of emotions in her delivery. After admitting that fulfillment was a long shot at best (“against the stream I was rowing”), the woman rises from the emotional devastation to express her firm belief that true love is still possible:

But I mean to climb up some higher, higher tree
And harry a white snowflake’s nest,
And down shall I fall, ay, without any fear
To the arms that love me the best.

In one sense, the song bears a striking similarity to “Shameless Love,” in that it is indeed possible to feel two completely opposite emotions at the same time. Ah, the wonder of being human!

We now move on to Richard Thompson’s contribution to crime fiction in the person of that “cold steel woman” known as “Pavanne,” the “beauty as elegant as ice.” This character sketch of a hit woman specializing in political assassinations is remarkably complete, and as is often the case, the seeds of her psychosis were planted in childhood trauma.

And they say she grew up well provided for,
Her mother used to keep her boys for sure.
And father’s close attentions led to talk,
She learned to stab her food with a silver fork.

June maintains the suspense as the story plays out, rendering the tale’s conclusion by opening the final verse in sotto voce to replicate the whispering gossip of the masses who have been following the case in the papers. She then rises to full power as she delivers the shocking truth about this female psychopath:

And they say she didn’t do it for the money,
And they say she didn’t do it for a man.
They say that she did it for the pleasure,
The pleasure of the moment.

Kudos again to Huw Warren for exceptionally sensitive piano support that faithfully tracks June’s emotional narrative.

You will often find at least one song on a June Tabor album that leaves you emotionally devastated, and on Against the Streams that song is “He Fades Away.” Written by the late Alistair Hewitt, Scottish immigrant to the lands down under and confirmed Trotskyite Socialist, the song consists of the reflections of an Australian woman who tends to her husband as he wastes away from lung disease caused by years of toil in the asbestos mines. Hewitt’s original is a decent piece of work, and while his empathy is admirable, the song needed a woman’s voice and sensibility to realize its potential.

The song begins with June’s voice, a voice expressing exhaustion, resignation and infinite sadness. She is soon joined by Andy Cutting on the diatonic accordion, a sound that serves to intensify the unimaginable heartbreak:

There’s a man in my bed I used to love him
His kisses used to take my breath away
There’s a man in my bed I hardly know him
I wipe his face and hold his hand
And watch him as he slowly fades away

He fades away
Not like leaves that fall in autumn
Turning gold against the grey
He fades away

Like the bloodstains on the pillow case
That I wash every day
He fades away

The second verse deals with the complications surrounding compensation, highlighting the cold, impersonal bureaucratic response of the state (“The lawyer says we might get compensation/In the course of due procedure/But he couldn’t say for certain at this stage”). June maintains that tone of resignation throughout the verse, indifferent to the possibility of compensation for reasons to be poignantly clarified in the final verse. The song then moves to the bridge, where we learn her husband is not the only victim of Austrailia’s Wittenoom mines. While Hewitt’s delivery in the original feels polemical and political, no one can express righteous outrage as effectively and genuinely as June Tabor. Her tone and phrasing change noticeably when she mentions the mines, seething with deep-seeded anger and human outrage at the sheer senselessness of the sacrifice:

And he’s not the only one
Who made that trip so many years ago
To work the Wittenoom mines
So many young men old before their time
And dying slow
They fade away
Wheezing bags of bones
Their lungs half clogged and full of clay
He fades away

She returns to that achingly moving tone of resignation in the final verse as she remarks on the absurdity of the compensation that may or may never come, subtly condemning the values of a system founded on the belief that money is an effective palliative for grief:

There’s a man in my bed they never told him
The cost of bringing home his weekly pay
And when the courts decide how much they owe him
How will he spend his money
When he lies in bed and coughs his life away?

The bitter irony of the story is that the Wittenoom Mines did in fact close at the end of 1966, but the closure had nothing to do with the individuals and families whose lives were ruined. No, the firm in question “closed its asbestos mining operations at Wittenoom claiming lack of profitability and falling of asbestos prices.” You can read the timeline of the disaster online, but that cold list of facts won’t come close to matching the impact of June Tabor’s moving performance.

“The Irish Girl” is a mysterious tale of abandoned love from singer-songwriter Peter Bond. Though the “plot” is somewhat surreal, the moral of the story is that a man “Seeking his fortune while the brightest jewel/Was within his reach all the while” is the ultimate fool. It’s a lovely song, marvelously supported by a string arrangement that weaves itself beautifully around the melody. Next comes a brief traditional intermission combining two different fragments, the song title drawing its name from the first (“Apples and Potatoes”) while the second is based on the tune from “God Killed the Devil.” The highlight of the piece is when June shifts to nonsense syllables in a burst of “traditional scat” delighting in the sounds of the did-a-lee-doos rolling off her tongue.

“Beauty and the Beast” is actually a poem by Jane Yolen set to music by the multi-talented Huw Warren, where June abandons singing for straight poetic narrative. We find the curiously matched couple in their golden years, the loping rhythm established by Huw Warren’s piano hinting that they’re taking a stroll about the grounds. The music of the primary theme combines C major during the verses and G minor emphasizing the fifth in the gaps, indicating that all may not be sunshine and roses in Beast Land beneath the superficial trappings. Beauty’s naïve belief in her ability to uncover the prince trapped beneath a beastly façade turns out a crapper, as she describes Beast as “graying around the muzzle.” The ultimate sacrificial lamb then claims she has “No regrets—-None.” At that point, the main musical theme vanishes, the key shifts to a pattern emphasizing half-step dissonance, and in a haltering voice, Beauty (speaking through June) reveals that she does in fact have regrets—that she and Beast were unable to have children.

The woman is a complete fucking idiot.

Dr. Jennifer James famously called bullshit on this fairytale, describing it as one that perpetuates the myth that “you can marry one of those guys and clean him up.” Jane Yolen wrote (among other things) books for children, so given her family-friendly bias, her mild revision of the story is hardly surprising. What I resent about both the original and this update is that both present the woman as weak and submissive, a wimp who accepts the limited choices offered her by society and who can only preserve her status as a good girl by sacrificing her life for the family. I have no problem with women who want children—I have a problem with women who buy into the narrative that they will never achieve full womanhood unless and until they get the production line going. Love the arrangement, love June’s portrayal of the character, loathe both the tale and the moral of the story.

I return to a much happier place when I hear the accordion strains that open “The Turn of the Road,” a touching and beautiful love song adapted from an old Irish tune by prolific writer, poet, satirist and comic Les Barker. The theme centers on the essential truth governing any intimate relationship: anyone can love someone “for better” but the true test lies in the “for worse.”

Will you walk with me
Beyond the road’s turning,
Where Day takes the valley
That leads into Night?
Love will you walk with me
All through my journey
Or only til’ the light?

June’s delivery on this piece is a combination of deliberate and careful enunciation (as if she’s making sure the partner fully understands) and bursts of intense passion around the vital importance of unconditional love. The power of the combination is best demonstrated in her exceptional phrasing, particularly on the couplet “The turn of the road, my love/That’s where I need you” where she extends the melodic line on the first verse to emphasize the intimate phrase, “my love,” then frames THAT’S around microscopic pauses to make the meaning clear. After a long and lovely accordion and string duet, we arrive at the climactic moment where the last two verses are repeated over more assertive supporting music and June sings the lines in a tone revealing complete confidence in the power of unconditional love:

Love, will you hold me
Through all my life’s evenings?
Love, will you take the road
Right to the end?

I never had someone
I could believe in
Forever my lover, my friend.

Oysterband mate Ian Telfer penned “Windy City,” a bitter ode to cities in the northern climes that began dying with predictable frequency following the decline in manufacturing and the loss of empire status. Mark Locklear trades his clarinet for tenor sax, giving this largely piano-driven song a touch of urban grit. The narrator is a youth desperate to escape the dead-end life of a rust belt denizen and relocate to sunnier climes (both literally and economically). The song reaches its emotional peak in the center, where June delivers the bridge, spitting out the words with unrestrained bitterness and bile:

We went to church on Sunday
We wore our Sunday best
We went to work on Monday
The damned just like the blessed
Just like the blessed

Locklear then follows with an equally expressive sax solo that qualifies as a pure knockout moment. It’s followed by a passage of quiet reflection and relief as the narrator arrives at the train station to make his escape. June emphasizes the “never” in the phrase “And I’m never coming back” in various ways—once through hard emphasis, once as settled fact and once by echoing the word gently in the fade, reflecting the relief of escape.

Bill Caddick, a regular contributor to June’s repertoire, earns the album’s closing spot with the gentle and lovely lullaby “Waiting for the Lark.” The spare backing music of gently plucked single string notes reflects the quiet moments of early morning before the sun has risen in pastoral lands where time is not measured by the clock but by the sounds and sights of the natural world. The sound of the lark is the true wake-up call in such a clime, a signal to the farmer that it’s time to till the fields or tend to the trees. It just so happens that I’m reading Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders at present, and there are several scenes in that book that could have been set to Caddick’s wonderful music and June’s gentle voice:

Sleep on child while the birds rest on
And the cow she sleeps in her stall.
Oh the meadow stands grey
In this dew-down moment before the day.
And waits for the lark to call.
And waits for the lark to call.

Though I will always be a city girl, hearing this song and reading Hardy make me yearn for a world that isn’t driven by artificial and arbitrary notions of time but by rhythms more compatible with the human spirit.

Twenty-five years after its release, Against the Streams confirms its status as a timeless work of pure artistry and exceptional courage. Such a description applies in varying degrees to all June Tabor’s work, but the diversity and depth of Against the Streams certainly qualifies it as one of her best. While superficial can be fun, it’s also exhausting in that you have to keep going back for more to scratch whatever itch you have. Listening to deeper, richer music that explores the core of human existence may feel challenging at first, but when it’s delivered by an artist as talented and sensitive as June Tabor, such music leaves you feeling fully engaged, fully alive and more closely connected to your fellow travelers on life’s journey.

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