Review: Jane Sheldon, North+South: Ten Folk Songs

Purity. There’s not much of it about in the modern world. In fact, there seems a conscious effort to move away from purity towards distortion, clumping amalgamation and cloying over-decoration.

This trend is so all-pervasive that you only notice all this impurity when you come across something entirely pure – like a child’s eyes, or a folk tune.

Soprano Jane Sheldon has gone for purity on her new independently-released album North+South: Ten Folk Songs. From the top down this collection of songs from the British Isles and the United States (North), and Australia (South) has been built with simplicity and clarity in mind.

And it is a pure delight.

New-York based Sheldon has a voice that is stunningly luminous. It is like clear light in the dark of the void. As weightless as light, yet as penetrating, it makes all ten songs simply glow. The spare and beautifully held accompaniments of the Acacia String Quartet or Genevieve Lang’s harp seem often barely there – sometimes only a slipstream behind that voice, or a halo around it.

The arrangements of the songs are so effective that they tie together a collection that is, at first look, disparate: Irish folk, Berio, The Go-Betweens, Benjamin Britten. But music is music, and good music is good music.

So we move seamlessly from the gorgeous ‘She Moved Through The Fair’ (the loveliest version I’ve heard since the Alan Stivell 1973 ‘From Celtic Roots’ recording) and the convict lament ‘Moreton Bay’ to Sheldon’s sentiment-free arrangement of ‘The Dying Stockman’, which takes the corn out and infuses the old thing with some real emotive depth.

Her selection, arrangement and treatment of the Go-Between’s literate and lovely ‘Cattle and Cane’ is smart. A song as evocative of time and place as any other piece in this collection, its nostalgic summer-haze is perfectly distilled by Sheldon and the Acacia Quartet.

Jane Sheldon says of the North+South project : “Once we started, it became apparent that stories told by immigrants, fragments of the lyrics and melodies had traversed the globe and belonged to more than one nation’s folk history… We opened up the program to include, for example, Britten’s arrangement of an Appalachian song. ‘I Will Never Marry’ is an English song set by two American interpreters in different centuries, which influenced my own arrangement.”

The lightness of Sheldon’s ‘I Will Never Marry’ – like many other selections here – brought to mind the archaic term for a tune or song: an ‘air’.

North+South: Ten Folk Songs is as light as air, as light as sunlight and a little oasis of purity in a dim-lit, noise-clogged world. A pure delight.

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