Posted by Kevin Boyd, 30 April 2011
Martin Carthy: “Essential” Topic Records TSCD770
Release date: 9 May 2011
I don’t envy David Suff and Tony Engle the task of whittling down almost 50 years of recordings from the career of Martin Carthy into the 34 tracks presented here and I’ll admit that in a number of instances I’d have made some (occasionally wildly) different choices. But I suppose that would be the case for anyone who’s followed Carthy’s recording career with any degree of interest so it’s a no-win situation for Suff and Engle and a rather pointless exercise on the part of the reviewer to start listing alternative choices. Having said that, it is interesting to consider what has – and occasionally, what hasn’t – been included given that the compilers had access to the majority of Carthy’s recorded output: 17 out of 18 solo albums (1972’s “Shearwater” continues to evade Topic), half a dozen each from Waterson:Carthy and Brass Monkey, plus of course those classic 1970s/80s Carthy-era Watersons releases.
Disc A of this double-CD set takes us from Carthy’s eponymous 1965 debut through to 1982’s “Out Of The Cut“, including tracks from the classic 1960s collaborations with Dave Swarbrick and the equally celebrated 1970s solo releases. We get the lovely clean vocals that were a feature of his earliest releases on tracks like “Scarborough Fair“, “Lord Franklin” and “Poor Murdered Woman” and his later explorations into innovative guitar accompaniment on the likes of “Seven Yellow Gypsies“, “Skewbald” and “The Bedmaking“. We even get a debut CD appearance for “The Bee’s Wing” from Carthy & Swarbrick’s 1967 “No Songs” EP. What we largely miss out on however is that period during the early- to mid-70s where Carthy made the conscious decision to omit the guitar completely where he felt is didn’t add anything significant to an arrangement. We only get Dave Goulder’s “January Man” from “Landfall” (1971) to represent this period and although this is a fine recording there are far more striking unaccompanied vocal performances on “Sweet Wivelsfield” (1974) and “Crown Of Horn” (1976) that we don’t get to hear on this compilation.
Nevertheless, this disc is still largely successful in representing the first couple of decades of Carthy’s recording career. We end with three distinct tracks that demonstrate the diversity of approaches that Carthy was beginning to take as the 1970s rolled into the 80s. “The Siege of Delhi” from 1979’s “Because It’s There” is a virtuoso guitar performance that, for me, hasn’t been matched since. “The Prickle Holly Bush” is the sole contribution here from The Watersons and is still a track that makes me wish Martin would have occasionally shown a little less humility and taken the lead on more of their 70s/80s repertoire. The final selection is “I Sowed Some Seeds”, one of a number of tracks from “Out Of The Cut” (1982) that showcased the nascent Brass Monkey.
Disc B is a much more diverse affair, chronicling as it does the four major directions that Carthy’s career would follow from the 1980s onwards. We get the solo work of course, and with ever fewer releases to choose from we’re treated to at least two tracks from each solo album during this period. The late 80s and early 90s also saw the re-emergance of the Carthy/Swarbrick duo which is represented by a couple of nicely chosen examples of their later work. Brass Monkey and Waterson:Carthy also loom large during this period and with a dozen albums between them and little more than 70 minutes playing time available it’s inevitable that the omissions here are perhaps more striking than the inclusions. We do however get “Sovay” and the straight up classic “The Maid And The Palmer” from Brass Monkey’s 1983 debut and the more recent (2004) “Maid Of Australia” which is by all accounts the only track that Carthy specifically asked to be included. If this seems a little stingy then Waterson:Carthy fare even worse with the inclusion of just two tracks, “Rackabello” (1997) and “Christ Made A Trance” (2004), the latter being essentially a solo recording anyway.
The really striking aspect of the second disc though is the quality of the solo recordings. 1988’s “Right Of Passage” is represented by three tracks and we get two each from “Signs Of Life” (1998) and “Waiting For Angels” (2004). “The Dominion Of The Sword” from 1988 is the earliest recorded example of Carthy collaborating with Chris Wood and his subtle fiddle work adds something special to this already astonishing track while “Sir Patrick Spens” from 1998 also benefits from some fine fiddle work, this time from Eliza Carthy. The absolute standout track here though is the ten minute tour de force of “The Famous Flower Of Serving Men” from 2004. By rights this should end the disc as there’s really nowhere else to go after this but the compilers instead choose to place it a few tracks from the end and we eventually finish up with the oft-requested “Harry Lime Theme“.
By and large then, this is as good an overview of Carthy’s career as you’re likely to get within the constraints of a double-CD. You could squabble over the inclusion or omission of individual tracks here and there but you can’t argue with the overall quality of the work that’s included here or with the breadth of styles and approaches that are represented. It’s been a long journey which I’m sure is far from over but as he approaches his 70th Birthday Carthy must surely be happy that his long-term collaborators at Topic Records have done him proud with this release.