June Tabor was born just two years after the Second World War ended; her performing career dates back to the mid-’60s and she first recorded in 1972. Already somewhat on the old side for a female singer-songwriter before she started, her longevity has been remarkable.
It’s no surprise, then, that her timeless minimalism has now reached the point where she can re-record her own songs (including 1976’s Grey Funeral Line and 1990’s Finisterre) alongside ancient Scottish sea shanties, add new material and mix in such raw-edged folk classics as Elvis Costello‘s Shipbuilding, a song previously covered by everyone from Robert Wyatt to Billy Bragg to Suede, and make them sound as though they were always intended to fit together this way.
Holding the eclectic mix together is Tabor’s characteristic raw yet tender voice, which carries the weight of the world while looking out from a rugged and brutal shore across a bleak, grey but ultimately beautiful ocean. The album has a distinct sea shanty theme, or at least a commonality of ocean running through its 13 tracks, but the waves lap rather than crash against the shore, few needing more harmony to carry them through than Shipbuilding’s bleak and familiar lonely notes. A notoriously difficult song, it is one by which singers rise or fall. Credit where it’s due: she pulls it off perfectly.
Accordions, folk strings and a bleak piano back her vocals, using instruments that belong as much to history as the traditional folk tales whose tunes they weave – from Orkney’s The Great Selkie Of Sule Skerry (previously covered by Joan Baez, The Byrds and This Mortal Coil), The Oggie Man and The Bleacher Lassie of Kelvinhaugh, the latter of which numbers Ewan MacColl amongst its previous champions.
The songs are either directly about the sea (I’ll Go And Enlist For A Sailor, Across the Wide Ocean), or are plucked from island homes to be thrust out into the wider world: French language songs The Vingt-Cinquieme du Mois d’Octobre and Le Petit Naivre are, for instance, natives of the Channel Islands rather than the Gallic mainland; Jamaica speaks for itself.
Tabor is an idiosyncratic musician coming from, and yet still adding to, a rich tradition of late ’60s folk that took unashamedly from a rich musical past that was gradually being reclaimed by the very rock and pop stars who had temporarily batted it aside, weaving into it their new fangled ways so that subsequent generations would never know that the two styles had once been oil and water.
We’re used, now, to dark, minimalism folk singers, but it wasn’t always this way and in any case, Tabor still stands out above the crowd. Rugged and beautiful, like a perfect cross-breeding of Nico� and PJ Harvey, she sings timeless songs with a timeless voice, carrying her listeners gently across cold oceans, rippling silently beneath dark and star-flecked indigo skies.