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MANY A MICKLE - What Fortunes Guide A Sailor?

MANY A MICKLE - What Fortunes Guide A Sailor?
Private Label  MAM01

Many A Mickle is an a cappella group consisting of four Brits based in Brittany. Jane and Peter Mickelborough, singers of long standing who moved to France in 2003, were joined last year by Carol Szewczyk and Colin Godfrey. Their lively and convivial four-part harmony arrangements (mostly by Peter) lend a distinctive styling to their performances of a wide selection of material from what might best be described as the English maritime tradition, predominantly sea-songs but with a few shanties and forebitters thrown in for good measure; they also include a couple of songs in French.

All four participants have strong voices, and Many A Mickle’s combined group sound is also both vibrant and full of life (not for them the laboured renditions of the tired old salts or the overblown gestures of the “tourist fodder” shanty groups). They’re clearly enjoying every moment of their singing together, and feed off each other’s energy. Their renditions of the various shanties on the disc (five of the 18 tracks) are suitably animated, if a touch brisk perhaps, and no reasonable objection can be made to the preponderance of harmonisation in their arrangements.
The songs meet with more mixed success, however; the two French items, though previously unknown to me, feel authentic and their pace is well-judged, while Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy, Davy Lowston and Fare Thee Well My Dearest Dear are particularly neatly managed, as is the hoary Sloop John B (which has overstayed its welcome for me over the years but here sounds freshly unearthed). The closing song (the disc’s title track) is also a quite delightful discovery: words by Gina Dunlap and a tune whose contours are rather reminiscent of How Can I Keep From Singing sound together particularly effectively.  However, there are just a few items against which the charge of undue briskness can be levied once again, and where it seems to have a more detrimental effect on the impact of the songs themselves. Bob Watson’s Mollymauk loses all its majesty in this jolly sing-song rendition (but at least the ensemble is consistent and keeps its head, and the result is peculiarly charming if you don’t already know the song!). But The Greenland Whale Fishery and Grey Funnel Line don’t really work at this chosen pace. There are isolated instances of uncertain intonation, as on The Cape’s In View, while on the three-shanty medley (track 17), the crew seem only just to avoid going overboard with their enthusiasm to launch into the third shanty – but even so, there’s nothing here to seriously undermine the general assurance of the group’s performances. There’s a chance that some listeners might find one of the women’s voices a touch eager, even abrasive, but her sense of presence and drive soon overrides objections and you soon get used to it and carried along with the momentum of the ensemble.
The fresh, immediate sound of Many A Mickle’s solidly-conceived harmony work leaves a strong impression, resulting in a most likeable disc that should be appreciated by those who like maritime repertoire yet find the specialist groups a little too austere or male-dominated. There’s one curious aspect of the admirably fulsome packaging that I find puzzling however – while all the song lyrics are given in full, the accompanying brief notes on the songs are given in French only.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 90 of The Living Tradition magazine.