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Cherry Red Records  ERSE1

A timely re-release for an album described as “truly one of Scotland’s hidden gems”, and while I wouldn’t go quite that far it definitely has much to commend it, even at the remove of almost 40 years, and not just as a “period piece” of curiosity value. Originally issued on Transatlantic in 1974, the six-piece’s eponymous album (their only recording) was, I guess, in some ways a typical folk-rock record, both in terms of its time and yet probably just a touch out of time: listening to its (intentionally?) all-encompassing menu, which comprises serviceable-or-better minor-powerhouse template-style rocked-up treatments of traditional songs and tunes (very Steeleye) placed in not always easy counterpoint with a healthy quotient of contemporary songs leaning at times towards the fulsomely-scored acoustic folk-pop/soft-rock beloved of the early-to-mid-70s charts.

The band’s lead singer, the then-18-year-old Mae McKenna, possessed a truly extraordinary voice that should on its own have ensured the band’s longevity, notwithstanding the more-than-capable instrumental skills of band members Billy (William) and George Jackson and John Martin (who were later to form Ossian, of course). However, Contraband dis-banded almost as soon as this album was released, thus ensuring a future for the disc on the shelves of vinyl obscurity – until this lavishly annotated reissue, which does the music within more than justice yet doesn’t make wilfully over-extravagant claims for it – although its booklet note asserts that Leige (sic) And Lief was released in 1967 – ouch!…

Although the band makes a pretty good fist of every style tackled on this set, I still find it a collection that perhaps tries too hard to crossover (and back again), from the stomping Morris-On of the Black Rogue jigs and a masterly retelling of The Devil’s Fiddle legend to an intense, string-soaked take on Rosie Hardman’s Lady For Today, the Lindisfarne-inspired singalong On The Road, a pair of Richard Digance originals (the breezy contemplation of Come Up Smiling and the chirpy silver-bedecked Edward Sayers’ Brass Band), and even the obligatory touch of silliness (drummer Alex Baird’s head-percussion rendition of the gallop from the William Tell Overture!). Having said that, its high points score very highly indeed: for instance, I don’t recall ever before hearing Banks Of Claudy done to the tune of Month Of January – and though it’s weird hearing it now after becoming so immured to the Coppers’ version, Mae’s singing here is nothing short of magisterial.

Whatever its (entirely likeable) inconsistencies, this album has proved worth resurrecting, for sure.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 92 of The Living Tradition magazine.