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STEVE ASHLEY - Speedy Return Market Square MSMCD118
Reissues of vinyl onto CD are nearly always worthwhile, especially when the reissuer doesn't succumb to the temptation to muck about with the original. Full marks to Market Square, who brought out Steve's first album "Stroll On" (MSMCD104) in 1999, for bringing the wonders of "Speedy Return" into earshot.

The title, as everyone who knows will tell you, is a heavily ironic reference to the inordinate amount of time Steve spent looking for a label - even in those days (28 years ago) the music business had little to do with music, though the eventual deal with Gull meant that in the USA this album was released on the Motown label. It is delicious to imagine Berry Gordy's expression as he listened to Steve's rip-roaring tribute to "Old John England" who'd sung to Cecil Sharp just 72 years earlier.

This is a record of inordinate care and grace. The songs are crafted superbly and performed with great skill and intelligence - both Steve and his compatriots are performing at the top of their game with obvious relish, yet nothing is wasted or over-played. The guests are too numerous to mention, but the presence of Robert Kirby as producer and orchestral arranger is particularly significant. It doesn't take too much of a leap of faith to speculate that Steve Ashley could achieve the kind of cult status currently enjoyed (albeit posthumously) by Nick Drake, also one of Kirby's clients. It works for me.

"Speedy Return" is underpinned by two of Steve Ashley's great trademarks - timelessness and Englishness. It bursts with joy and humanity transmitted by wonderful and innovative music. You owe it to yourself to own a copy.

Alan Rose