June Tabor

Always

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The British folk revival of the late '60s and '70s had its fair share of formidable sirens -- Shirley Collins, Norma Waterson, Anne Briggs -- but none so effortlessly took the genre outside as June Tabor. Her rich baritone needs no accompaniment, as evidenced on the numerous a cappella pieces that grace Always, her first official box set, but when it does find itself among pianos, horns, or an upright bass it holds onto a frequency all its own. Like 2002's Shirley Collins retrospective Within Sound, Topic's sprawling four-disc anthology eschews the usual artist "career overview" for a festival of rarities, outtakes, and live tracks -- numerous studio cuts appear as well -- that are anything but ordinary. Always follows no predetermined time line -- and it shouldn't really -- opting for early classics from Airs and Graces and her 1983 Martin Simpson collaboration, A Cut Above, to sit side by side with newly recorded live cuts like "Seeds of Love." Selections from her work with the Oyster Band as well as standout tracks from both Silly Sisters albums with Maddy Prior -- though it would have been nice to hear a newly remastered version of Cyril Tawney's haunting seafaring lament "The Grey Funnel Line" instead of the amiable but empty "Geordie" -- help to give the ballad-heavy collection some occasional pep, while the inclusion of previously unreleased gems like a live, horn-laden cover of Kris Kristofferson's "Casey's Last Ride" with the Creative Jazz Orchestra and rustic demos of "The Week Before Easter" and "Four Loom Weaver" that sound like Tabor was just popping her head out of the window and there happened to be a running tape machine below continuously surprise with their inventiveness. Always, like all of the minutia-obsessed Topic box sets, is exhaustive from a visual standpoint as well. A 46-page booklet chronicles the artist's rise from awkward teen in the English Midlands to British-folk legend through a series of photos, interviews, and a track-by-track commentary by Tabor herself. The overall effect is as intimate as the genre is vast, providing a tea-room listening party for both artist and consumer that's both congenial and cordial, like the deep, warm knowing voice it celebrates.

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