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Topic Records TSCD592P

Here it is; arguably the big release of the winter – and it doesn't disappoint. Ms Carthy's latest is big in all senses. On tour and in the studio it kept a 12-strong roster of the folk scene's brightest and best out of trouble while they fashioned a follow-up to the compilation of the best of her unique career, Wayward Daughter.

Or should that be careers plural? One of the remarkable things about the way she has navigated her way is that she has, in effect, had two of them. On the one hand, there is the traditional musician and singer; such a positive influence in driving that first love on for another generation. On the other, she pursues a quirky and highly individual path as a writer and interpreter of modern songs. Either one of those would make her a major figure; her mastery of both makes her special. What you don't often get from her, though, is an equal balance between the ancient and modern. If you buy a CD or a concert ticket with the name Eliza Carthy on it, you get one thing but not the other.

Big Machine therefore represents the most determined stab so far at marrying the two strands of her brilliance. It works rather magnificently, although that is hardly a surprise given the quality of the cast-list involved. To run through just a few names – and with apologies to the others – it includes the likes of Sam Sweeney, David Delarre, Barn Stradling, Saul Rose, Beth Porter and Lucy Farrell. Not many of them total strangers to her, it has to be said. They sound as exultantly mighty as they should.

The only question, then, is at what they should direct their power. The answer is a refreshingly wide range of sources; there is Eliza's own You Know Me, about the refugee crisis and definitely one of her best songs so far; Ewan MacColl's Fitter's Song; and a revisiting of Rory McLeod's Hug You Like A Mountain. Personally, I thought she had that one pretty much nailed on Dreams Of Breathing Underwater, but the presence of Teddy Thompson as a guest takes it off in different directions.

There are also songs from a broadside collection in Manchester. It almost doesn't matter; such is her confidence now that she could sing just about anything in any company and make a success of it. The keynote track, I Wish That The Wars Were All Over, is the sort of big, traditional song that she relishes getting her hands on. It starts with some industrial ambience and then welcomes Damien Dempsey aboard to sing just out of kilter with Eliza.

It sounds like it shouldn't work, but it does.

This is a thoroughly ambitious piece of work. It could be a soundtrack to the summer, because it has its potential to fill the Bellowhead-shaped void during the festival season writ large on its sleeve. My only complaint is that the second CD of the deluxe edition, with such delights as her Uncle Mike's Three Day Millionaire, is not included. That will make it a bit bigger still.

Dave Hadfield

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This album was reviewed in Issue 117 of The Living Tradition magazine.