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SHE SHANTIES - Spanker Boom

SHE SHANTIES - Spanker Boom
Private Label

She shings she shanties on the shea shore? Yes; and hey, why not? The Johnson Girls have proved that all-female specialist shanty groups can deliver the goods, while the wider folk scene benefits from some extremely powerful female singers whose repertoire proudly encompasses leading shanties. So, much as you’d expect from the name, She Shanties is a women’s shanty crew – hurrah! The group, in effect a collective of singers all with years of experience in a range of genres, was formed around four years ago. It comprises a dozen strong-voiced young ladies, among whose ranks you’ll find some familiar names (Cath Tyler, Ruth & Sadie Price, Rachel Hamer), but equally there’s no lack of vocal talent in the remaining eight, less well-known group members. For She Shanties got together for all the right reasons – notably through a shared love of singing and harmonising at UK folk festivals. (They’ve also a shared sense of humour, evidently, judging from the title of this self-styled mini-album, which they describe as “officially the most amusing part of a ship!” Hmm…).

She Shanties are certainly a hoot live, and this recording – their CD debut – gives a better-than-decent flavour of their lusty combined wall-of-sound and their (inevitably) slightly mob-handed stage presence. At the same time, the home-listening experience necessarily emphasises the harmonised nature of their approach to the repertoire, the value and virtue of which will depend much on the listener’s own stance regarding the performance of shanties. The purists and hardcore shanty buffs may carp at any deviation from the sweaty, driven shanty-as-worksong-and-don’t-you-forget-it, while on the other hand the “entertain me, I’m only a tourist” brigade may find She Shanties too refined and cultivated. Me, I think She Shanties do a grand job in striking a wonderfully fresh balance between ebullience and enterprise, conveying both the energy of the driven worksong and the natural harmonising potential of the material. Sure, their infectious enthusiasm may occasionally get the better of accuracy of intonation or phrasing, but rough edges are all part of the game and rightly refuse to be ironed out by any over-arrangement, however intelligently conceived.

Over the (well-charted) course of the mini-album’s seven seas, we get a goodly representation of the latitudes over which the group presides, including ‘bread-and-butter’ shanties like Rio Grande and Spanish Ladies and repertoire chestnuts Roll Alabama and Bonny Ship The Diamond. She Shanties also turn in a boisterous version of Jack Forbes’ modern cargo shanty Tilbury Town, and their stirring rendition of Peter Bellamy’s classic Roll Down (from The Transports) loses nothing in power through being twin-lead and fulsomely harmonised. General Taylor may initially seem a touch too measured, but the ‘chorale’ approach pays dividends in consistency and listenability – and freshness. There’s a good variety in the characters of the various leads too; I didn’t make a point of counting, but it feels very much as though the group democratically shares out the shantyman role, as each singer takes her turn to step into the spotlight, her own defined personality by and large well suited to the chosen shanty (though I’d like to have seen the various individual shanty leaders identified in the concise and useful liner notes). All in all, these performances communicate the participants’ own fun and enjoyment, which spills right over the deck and into the larynx of the receptive listener, inveigling him/her into joining voices with the mighty crew. Though but a short haul, Spanker Boom is a brilliant taster for this ensemble, of whom I look forward to hearing more.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 109 of The Living Tradition magazine.