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MAGPIE LANE The Robber Bird

MAGPIE LANE The Robber Bird
Private Label MLCD08

This eighth studio album from the highly respected Oxfordshire five-piece presents a snapshot of the band’s current repertoire, which (unsurprisingly) majors on joyful and committed performances of English traditional songs and dance tunes, mixing well-loved repertoire (albeit in less-often-heard versions) with several items you’re not likely to have heard before. Their tried and tested, intensely vital approach is typified by the opening selection, The Lark In The Morning, nothing less than a jolly celebration of ploughboys’ sexual prowess, which is generously topped and tailed with a lively dance tune (The Muffin Man). Other instrumental selections are equally colourfully presented, with fiddle, cello, melodeon, anglo-concertina, harmonica, bouzouki and guitar all united in happy counterpoint.

The group’s blessed with an abundance of good singers, whose warm and thoroughly idiomatic performances (especially those of percussionist Ian Giles) give the group’s renditions a distinctively lusty character; together their harmony work is exemplary. Their exuberant ensemble singing on the shanty Hanging Johnny is inventively incorporated into a loosely crime-and-punishment-themed set midway through the disc that gleefully concludes with John Kirkpatrick’s Shreds And Patches. Another vocal highlight is Sophie Thurman’s confident take on the classic love song The Turtle Dove from the RVW collection. The final track on this new CD, however, is a comparatively uncharacteristic (for Magpie Lane) departure into contemporary tradition: a responsive take on When The Snows Of Winter Fall, from the pen of one of our finest living songwriters, Graeme Miles. Elsewhere, no fewer than three of the disc’s tracks see the group revisiting earlier successes: firstly, The Shepherd’s Song (originally rendered acappella on the Speed The Plough CD) is here most attractively sandwiched between two vigorous morris tunes, whereas Oxford City (a perennial favourite of the band’s live sets), was originally recorded as far back as their first CD in 1993, and now comes in a more focused, freshly stripped-back voice-and-guitar garb; finally, The Highwayman Outwitted now sports a completely new musical arrangement, no doubt occasioned by the adoption of a slightly different set of words.

What I really like about Magpie Lane, and which provides a thread of consistency running through their 18-year-so-far career, is the way their unflashily expert musicianship informs their performing style and keeps it fresh. Long may they thrive. 

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 91 of The Living Tradition magazine.