Ralph McTell

From Clare to Here: The Songs of Ralph McTell

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Folk fans owe a debt of gratitude to Minnesota independent label Red House for putting a thorough Ralph McTell compilation into print in the U.S. This collection, copyright 1991, contains 16 tracks at a running time of nearly 71 minutes. One song is new and three others are re-recordings, but none of that matters very much. New listeners are liable to be reminded of McTell's contemporary Al Stewart, who has a similarly becalmed British delivery and musical arrangements keyed to his delicate fingerpicking. (Various members of Fairport Convention, past and present, frequently accompany McTell, with lead guitarists Jerry Donahue's and Richard Thompson's playing sometimes suggesting Mark Knopfler, although since McTell preceded Dire Straits by a decade, maybe it should be the other way around.) Other soundalikes would include James Taylor and Chris DeBurgh, though McTell has none of the pop sensibility of the former or the melodramatic tone of the latter. Rather, he delivers his songs in an unhurried manner that corresponds to the wistfulness and regret of his lyrics, which are reflections on working-class life, full of aspirations and disappointments. His story songs have a fable-like quality, not so much in the sense of being grandiose as in the sense of being distanced -- the emotion has been distilled by time so that they always seem to be works of memory. Even "Streets of London" (presented here in its third, "hit" recording), which has a point to make, does so in such a prosaic way that there's no sting. It may be that the reason it has been McTell's only hit is that he's essentially a formalist, less interested in the opportunities folk music presents for expressiveness than in the ties it maintains to tradition.

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