Album Reviews

Various – Beautiful Star: The Songs of Odetta

(WTT) UK release date: 30 November 2009

Odetta Holmes was as influential in the American Civil Rights Movement as on the American folk music scene of the 20th century. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, she was one of the great collectors and translators of her nation’s songbook.

On Beautiful Star: The Songs Of Odetta a new generation of artists have recorded a selection of her tunes, from her best-known classics through to lesser-known, self-penned songs. It seems wholly in keeping with Odetta’s ideals that all profits of this project will be divided between two worthwhile women’s charities, The Fawcett Society and The Women’s Resource Centre.

Happily it’s not just in worthy charitable intent that this album excels. For those previously unfamiliar with the protest- spiritual- and folk-songs popularised by Odetta, this compilation, launched by magazine Wears The Trousers in their first outing as a record label, will serve as a terrific primer.

A recurring theme is that of travelling. Often arduous journeys are taken, with obstacles surmounted along the way in a manner that can be empowering and uplifting, as on album opener Sail Away Ladies. But Odetta articulated feelings of melancholy and homesickness (“I’ve tears in my eyes / Tryin’ to read a letter from my home” from 900 Miles), being cheerful (Santy Anno) and woebegone and disenfranchised (“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child / Long way from home” – Motherless Child) too.

Other preoccupations include possessions and attitudes to them, particularly on If I Had A Ribbon Bow and 900 Miles; religion and spirituality (All My Trials, What A Friend We Have), and an attitude of long-suffering resignation or gentle acceptance of life’s trials (All My Trials, Beautiful Star, Sail Away Ladies).

Where this compilation has really succeeded quite magnificently is in the remarkable coherence that it has managed to bring to this fairly disparate collection of artists. Where all too often “Various Artists” releases can simply sound like a random agglomeration of songs with very little connection, here there is a very recognisable sense of the album as a complete and whole entity.

This is in large part due to the vocal talents of the featured artists, which are – almost without exception – striking. Anais Mitchell‘s interpretation of All My Trials – girlish, intimate and pure – is genuinely attention-grabbing; and the contributions from nearly every artist, but in particular Madam, Ora Cogan, Marissa Nadler and Katey Brooks are equally impressive and show-stopping.

Another feature that helps the album hang together so well is the way that a thread of similar emotions or moods can be followed as it traces through different songs sung by different artists. The intensity of Madam’s stark, strident and initially acapella delivery on Waterboy, for example, is found again in Brooks’ What A Friend We Have: once again sung acapella, but this time with a close, almost oppressive sense of intimacy, an intimacy which in turn is also seen in closing track This Little Light Of Mine by Arborea.

It does seem a pity that All My Trials features twice, although both versions (the first by Mitchell, the second by Nadler) are in themselves amongst the album’s highlights, and so eminently worthy of inclusion. The only other (arguably) false step is Sandy Dillon‘s live version of Can’t Afford To Lose My Man, likely to prove one of those polarising love-it-or-hate-it tracks, with its unique and peculiar mannered vocal delivery: all vampish tics, croaks and little squeak/shrieks. Society Of Imaginary Friends provide a dramatic take on Another Man Done Gone, that teeters on the edge of melodrama, with sometimes operatic theatricality.

One of the delights of an album such as this is that it not only provides an insight into the artist whose work is being covered while a range of talented musicians is introduced. The stand-out performances are from Mitchell (All My Trials), Madam (Waterboy), Pepi Ginsberg (the Odetta-penned Beautiful Star, here magically embellished with birdsong and twinkling accompaniment) and perhaps best of all Liz Durrett, whose take on Chilly Winds is at the same time one of the most contemporary-sounding and also most yearning and tragic tracks here.

All should resonate with the listener, and also serve as a prompt to seek out more work by these talented women. Something, surely, of which Odetta Holmes herself would have approved.

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