A few years ago, I put Finest Kind's magnificent recording of "The Banks of the Sweet Primroses" on my New Year's CD, and my friend Claudio e-mailed a thank you note for the disc in which he said, "Finest Kind are the finest kind indeed!"
It's a sentiment that I heartily endorse. This Canadian trio -- Ian Robb, Shelley Posen and Ann Downey -- are three of the best singers that you can find out there, and their songs are filled with wonderful harmonies, arranged to bring out the lyrics and meaning of the songs. Next year, they will start their third decade together as a band.
The e-mail came from Ian Robb last week that a new Finest Kind CD was available, so I sent him the money through my PayPal account and within the week had the hand-packed package from Ian in my mailbox.
The disc is another great one, a mix of traditional English songs, sea shanties, American country music tunes done with an Anglo-Celtic twist and more.
The group opens up with "Bay of Biscay," a song with roots in County Donegal that Ian first learned from Tim Hart and Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span. The song is Finest Kind at their best. About a woman who has waited seven years for her sailor husband to return, when "a knock came to her bedroom door / saying, 'Arise, arise, my dearest Mary / just to earn one glance of your Willy-oh," and there is her dead husband's ghost at the door. The band soars on "arise, arise," and when she "spied young Willy standing." The song is sung in stacked harmony with Shelley's voice occasionally dropping out and then coming back in for emphasis. And they hesitate just right on the last verse -- "If I had all the gold and silver / and all the money in Mexico / I would grant it all to the King of Erin / Just to bring me back my Willy-oh" -- lingering on the second-to-last note before resolving.
"Claudy Banks," a folk classic associated with the Copper Family (indeed the first song ever collected for the English Folk Song Society, back in 1897), "The Lass That Loved a Sailor," collected in Newfoundland, and "By the Green Grove" are similar.
Midway through the album, they bust out the old stalwart "Lowlands Low," also known as "The Golden Vanity" or the "Merry Willow Tree" or about five or six other names. On the first listen, I sort of shrugged at this one, thinking that I would opt for the version that John Roberts and Tony Barrand put on 2003's Twiddlum Twaddlum or Bruce Molsky's treatment on Soon Be Time. (In fact, I thought it was the counterpart to Roberts and Barrand recording Rudyard Kipling's "A Pilgrim's Way," a song that never needs to be recorded again because there is no hope of improving on Finest Kind's version on Lost in a Song.) In particular, I didn't think that the chorus was quite as rousing as it usually is. But the twist in the story in this particular version makes it a worthy and valuable recording to have. It turns out that it's a Canadian version that Shelley learned frmo an Ottawa Valley singer named Loy Gavan.
For a bit of fun, the band has included "John Barleycorn Deconstructed," which is not so much a textual exegesis of the classic song but rather a blow-by-blow account of how Finest Kind arrangements work.
The second track of the disc -- after the classic "Bay of Biscay" opener -- is "She Thinks I Still Care," written by Dickey Lee and associated with George Jones. With Michael Ball on fiddle and Shelley on guitar, the band drives it along, taking it a little faster (and happier) than the Possum does, but it comes off nicely with a soaring vocal ending. The Jimmie Rodgers' song "Why Should I Be Lonely?" comes later in the set.
Ann takes the lead vocals and plays the banjo on "Short Life of Trouble," the Appalachian entry on the disc. Associated with Grayson and Whitter and Burnett and Rutherford -- two groups that recorded the song in the 1920s -- and now with Ralph Stanley and Doc Watson, Finest Kind gives it a nice treatment, again with an emphasis on the harmonies that they weave into the song, capturing the lonesomeness that runs through the song.
The real treasures, though, on the CD are tracks six through eight. First up in this trio is "Bully in the Alley," a "raucous work song" (as the band describes it) that was sung by men loading cotton into boats in the ante bellum South. With the ever-terrific James Stephens on fiddle and Jody Benjamin on triangle, the song has a ton of energy in it, and the singing, under Ian's lead, is right on. It's a favorite of mine, and they get it just as spot-on as I would have hoped. (The other sea shanty on the CD is a modern one -- 1988 vintage -- "From Dover to Calais," about hovercraft that crossed the English Channel.)
From all of that energy, Ian's concertina and James Stephens' fiddle walk us into U. Utah Phillips' "He Comes Like Rain (Like Wind He Goes)." Bruce Phillips wrote this song for the many hobos that he met in his travels. The Finest Kind version makes it more lonesome and heartfelt than even the Phillips original (recorded with guitar and mandolin). It is a great version, and it's a pleasure to find it here.
It is followed by Ian's setting of an 1850s poet written by Chartist Ernest Jones called "Song of the Lower Classes." The following verse is typical:
We’re low —- we’re low —- we’re very very low,Back to an a capella setting and again with Ian's lead vocals, the song is powerful. Lest it get you too down, though, Ian has added a slightly more upbeat conclusion to the original poem.
Yet from our fingers glide
The silken flow and the robes that glow
Round the limbs of the sons of pride.
And what we get and what we give
We know, and we know our share:
We’re not too low the cloth to weave,
But too low the cloth to wear!
All in all, it's another winner from Finest Kind. If you're a fan of classic English-style folk singing, this disc is a must-have.