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VARIOUS ARTISTS - Vision & Revision: The First 80 Years Of Topic Records 

VARIOUS ARTISTS - Vision & Revision: The First 80 Years Of Topic Records 
Topic Records TXCD597 

80 years is a very long time, and a lot of water has flowed under the bridge even within the comparatively specialist musical tributary of British and Irish folk. Even more impressive, then, is the achievement of flagship Topic, the world’s oldest surviving independent record label (proof of the enduring ‘grass roots interest in folk music) – its longevity and deep integrity being a serious cause for celebration.

How to mark this momentous occasion, then? Well, for once not with a multi-decade-spanning box-set compilation of classic Topic tracks including a decent quotient of previously-unreleased goodies to tempt the purchaser – been there, done that (with Three Score Years & Ten)! Instead, the Vision & Revision banner heralds two discs of brand new recordings. The strap-line gives the game away: this set pays fulsome tribute to the label whose forward-thinking outlook, its openness to reinvention via continual evolution (with fingers well out of ears!), is informed by genuine deep respect for folk tradition in all its guises. To this end, 20 acts, all ‘leading lights’ of today’s folk scene (many of whom, incidentally, haven’t previously recorded for Topic) have personally chosen from the treasure-chest of the exhaustive Topic catalogue a specific song to reinterpret; they also helpfully supply insights into source and rationale for their choice (very often stemming from distinctly Damascene moments or key musical experiences).

Fittingly, then, a good many of the set’s contemporary reimaginings provide significant ‘goosebump moments’ of their own. Myself, I was completely smitten first by Peggy Seeger’s compelling account of Mike Waterson’s Jack Frost, then by the contributions by Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker, Lisa O’Neill, Emily Portman & Olivia Chaney, Lankum, Oysterband and Kitty MacFarlane (tackling Banks Of The Sweet Primroses, As I Roved Out, Bay Of Biscay, The Sea Captain, Seven Gypsies and Go Your Way respectively). I could go on, but the embarrassment of riches makes the word-count-starved reviewer’s task nigh impossible!

It may seem a cop-out, then, for me to endorse Billy Bragg’s typically enlightened foreword: “Like the music, Topic endures. Long may it do so.” But in whatever context (and for established folkie and new recruit alike) Vision & Revision is an immensely valuable release.

David Kidman


This review appeared in Issue 130 of The Living Tradition magazine