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GAIL WILLIAMS with Jim Younger - Women of a Certain Age - Songs from the American Tradition Rossendale Records MUSCD006

As former residents at the Chestnuts Folk Club, Walthamstow and current regulars at the Cellar Upstairs, Gail Williams and Jim Younger have been stalwarts of the London folk scene for over 20 years. Although Gail appeared as a back-up vocalist on American old-time fiddler Kate Lissauer's 1998 album Ain't No Grave, Women of a Certain Age is the North Wales-born singer's first solo recording. And with husband and long-time musical partner Jim providing 5-string banjo/guitar accompaniment on eight of the 13 tracks, and production by Irish-born singer Donal Maguire, a fine debut it is, too.

The material - as stated in the album's sub-title - is nearly all American in origin, although such is the cross-fertilisation within the tradition between the two sides of the Atlantic that at least five of the songs featured here began life on this side of the pond. These include excellent renditions of American versions of two Child ballads - Wind and Rain (The Two Sisters) and The Lady Gay (The Wife of Usher's Well) - as well as the beautifully arranged Our Captain Cried All Hands, which was featured on Martin Carthy's 1967 album Byker Hill. Other highlights include confident and powerful performances on Arkansas singer Almeda Riddle's The Titanic, The Bad Girl, a version of The Young Girl Cut Down in Her Prime, and Dear Companion, a tale of lost love from North Carolina. The only non-traditional song is the classic country number Silver Threads and Golden Needles and the album concludes with my own particular favourite, a moving rendition of the old-time gospel song Wayfaring Pilgrim. Not to be filed under the 'Easy Listening' category, this is an album that demands close attention. The instrumentation has been - deliberately - kept to a minimum, thus emphasising the singer and the songs. Even on the tracks that feature either guitar or 5-string banjo, Jim's imaginative and sensitive accompaniment never gets in the way of the songs. Gail is a very good singer, too, and she handles her material with great skill and confidence. The same can be said of the album's bold production, which emphasises the warmth and strength of Gail's voice; a lesser performer's limitations would be starkly highlighted by such exposure. If you're interested in good songs well sung, this album is for you.

Dave Marshall