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NOTTS ALLIANCE - On The Doorstep

NOTTS ALLIANCE - On The Doorstep
RMB/Vienna Records RMBCD1305

On The Doorstep chronicles the continuing vocal adventures of this established a cappella threesome (Stephen Bailey, Chris Orme and Phil Hardcastle), who since the untimely death of fellow-member Sid Long in 2005 have proved themselves ever eager to rise to new challenges and launch on a voyage of discovery, thence constantly adding new songs to keep their repertoire fresh. Like its predecessor, 2008’s Faithful Hearts, On The Doorstep also makes a virtue of covering all bases in terms of diversity of material, from the sublime to the absurd, from strict traditional to enterprising contemporary and here also including two self-penned items (the fun tale of The Belper Ferret and a canny update-cum-reworking of Dave Goulder’s January Man that takes due account of climate change). You may not like every song they tackle (personally I’m not sold on Lilly, from the Pink Martini canon), but you can’t deny they do what they do well.

Having said all that, the balance does seem to be weighted much more in favour of tradition this time round, which works in the group’s favour I feel. They turn in particularly fine renditions of When I Was In My Prime, Britford’s Second Carol, Bushes And Briars and John Barleycorn (the wonderful minor-key “Scottish” version, albeit relocated to England) which are placed credibly alongside some less often-heard pieces, notably Roll On John, the rounds Malt Is Come Down and A Robyn, and the curious Poor Old Horse (as collected by Jim Eldon). Alex Atterson’s memorable ballad-like setting of Charles Causley’s A Ballad For Katherine Of Aragon is an unusual choice worth hearing too (the group got this item from Maggie Holland). And Sydney Carter’s infrequently-heard Putting Out The Dustbin provides the relevant link to the disc’s title.

A special trademark of Notts Alliance and a distinct advantage they have over some harmony-based ensembles, is their internal fluidity, manifest in the ability of individuals within the group (notably Stephen Bailey) to switch parts and roles. This attribute works greatly to their benefit, although to be fair it can also provide an instance of the potential drawback of harmony singing (for the listener), whereby the level of accomplishment and/or of arrangement and perceived equality of parts, as brought out so capably in performance, can sometimes make it a trifle difficult to distinguish or separate tune from counter-melody and/or harmony, as here on the aforementioned Poor Old Horse (which in any case isn’t an easy song to get to grips with in terms of structure or melody line).

Interestingly, this new disc differs from Faithful Hearts in that it places the emphasis firmly on group performances (no purely solo items being included); this only goes to reinforce the fact that Notts Alliance have over the years since 2008 moved on even more in terms of developing and refining a definitive group identity following Sid’s death (for from so tragic an event it quite naturally takes time to recover). Well done I say.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 99 of The Living Tradition magazine.