On the Doorstep
From Baz Parkes, English Dance and Song, Jan 14
I noticed at last year’s festivals was the increasing number of young
people in various combinations singing unaccompanied songs, all making
a more than fine job of it. Some are even studying it at university,
rather than, say, History, Geography, or Very Hard Sums. This can only
be a very good thing, but we must never lose sight of those who’ve been
doing it for a very long time. Notts Alliance have been going since
1972, although the current line-up only came into existence in 1989...
the Doorstep is an object lesson in how a recording of unaccompanied
singing should sound. There’s a nice mixture of traditional and
contemporary songs, both humorous and serious, and the harmonies are
stunning. Each member of the trio has a strong individual voice, and
these blend with the ease and assurity that long-standing singing
together brings. No shred of contempt in this familiarity.
the recent songs, Charles Causley’s ‘A Ballad for Katherine of Aragon’
and the inspired pairing of ‘Cannily, Cannily/Little Piecer’ are
particularly strong, while ‘The Belper Ferret’ is a fine showcase for
the trio’s wit and vocal dexterity... ‘When you’re a bright young
ferret/It’s a thing that surely rankles/When your sights are on the
gusset/but you can’t get past the ankles.’ On the Trad arr. front, the
opening version of ‘Poor Old Horse’ (collected by Jim Eldon) sets a
high standard for the rest of the collection, which is easily
maintained by a wonderful ‘Two Sisters’ and ‘John Barleycorn’, both in
versions satisfyingly different from those usually heard. John Adams’
production and Jon Loomes’ engineering also deserve a mention...
there’s a clarity and warmth about this recording that I’ve not heard
for a long time.
as if all that were not enough, they’ve also been imbued with the gift
of prophecy if their inspired re-writing of Dave Goulder’s ‘The January
Man’ is anything to go by: ‘The poor November man sees rain and
mist/And mist and rain and yet more rain...’ Indeed.
From Bob Taberner, Folk Monthly Dec 13
always a good sign when you find yourself joining in with the choruses
on the CD you’re reviewing or recalling bits of the songs at odd
moments later. That was my experience with this CD from Notts Alliance.
The other immediate thought was how underrated they are. There can’t be
many better three part harmony groups.
From David Kidman, Living Tradition
"Well done I say"
The title comes from Sydney Carter’s haunting “Putting out the Dustbin” which is just one of a number of intriguing songs contained on this, the fourth, album from Notts Alliance and their second as a trio. As expected of the lads we have another collection of high quality, well thought out close harmonies applied to an array of songs, some well known others that will be new to many listeners.
Although I say well known songs some of them such as “John Barleycorn”, Two Sisters” , “Poor Old Horse” or “A Jug of This” are certainly less familiar versions while “Bushes and Briars” and “Malt is Come Down” are exactly as you would expect to find them.
Two of the standout tracks for me are both more recently composed items, as opposed to the traditional material that I have mentioned, the first being their arrangement of the Charles Causley anti – war poem, set to music by Alex Atterson, “A Ballad of Katherine of Aragon” while the other is the song to which I alluded at the beginning, “Putting out the Dustbin” which I first heard in my very early days on the folk scene and its stark imagery has remained with me since; so it was a pleasure to hear the group bring it to life again.
There are two humorous songs present, the group’s re – working of Dave Goulder’s “New January Man” and “The Belper Ferret” however for me they both appear to be strangely out of place in the company of the other songs on the CD especially as the latter is followed by a masterful rendering of the heart wrenching “Banks of the Bann” a song that fits the same description as the Carter piece mentioned before.
The album concludes in joyful fashion with their arrangement of “Second Carol” one of two of the Britford Carols collected by Rev Geoffry Hill and is guaranteed to encourage the listener to seek out the next live performance of Notts Alliance to experience these tracks in a live environment.
From Dave Eyre, EDS - English Dance and Song, Spring 09
Heart is a welcome addition to the discography of Notts Alliance, who
have continued singing despite the loss of Sid Long. They seem to have
swapped around the lines they take, but the overall effect is still
that trademark sound of carefully-crafted harmonies and well-chosen
From Tony Hendry at The Living Tradition
Notts Alliance is a group of unaccompanied harmony singers who emerged from the Nottingham Traditional Musical Club in the 70s and 80s. Away from their day jobs, they have built a lasting reputation at clubs and festivals as engaging performers of diverse material. They are Old Labour with a smile on its face, and grand lads all. This 46-minute CD is their first since the death of Sid Long and is dedicated to him. Their fans will be delighted that Stephen Bailey, Chris Orme and Phil Hardcastle have decided to continue. Chris has taken on the bass line; with Stephen and Phil continuing with top line and tune respectively.
The title comes from Fare Thee Well My Dearest Dear. A clutch of other songs touch on faithfulness in love, or it's selfish opposite. To Althea from Prison is Richard Lovelace's poem set to music by Dave Swarbrick. The Wife Of The Soldier is a reworked version of a song by Berthold Brecht. Hostess's Daughter, sung solo by Phil, is from the Sabine Baring Gould collection. I Was A Young Man, popularised by Martin Carthy, is a candid tale of marital disharmony. The Brown and Yellow Ale, also recorded by The Voice Squad, is a dark, sparse mystery translated from a Gaelic ballad - don't lend your wife to another man, is the nub of it.
Outside this central theme, the pleasures include songs from Richard Thompson (Al Bowlly's In Heaven, and Wall Of Death) and Michael Marra (Frida Kahlo's Visit To The Taybridge Bar), a Kipling/Bellamy collaboration (Oak And Ash And Thorn), adventures on the high seas (Coasts Of High Barbary) and a Christmas wassail song.
abounds on this album. The arrangements always engage the listener's
interest without distracting from the stories. The singing is warm and
clear, and hasn't been smoothed away to blandness. Purists would prefer
a bit more delving into original sources for the traditional songs, but
this is an honest and enjoyable collection.
From David Kidman at www.netrhythms.co.uk
Notts Alliance last produced a CD (2003's Nothing Spoken), the untimely
death of key member Sid Long has necessarily reduced the lineup to a
three-piece. All credit to the trio (Stephen Bailey, Chris Orme and
Phil Hardcastle) for continuing to perform, and for steadfastly
adhering to their artistic principles while so doing. First and
foremost, they still only sing songs which they like (a wholly
admirable policy, which more performers ought to adopt IMHO!), with the
result that the selection of material is genuinely open-minded and
refreshingly eclectic. Well, perhaps not quite as much so this time
round, although the trio can still move convincingly between
traditional song, Brecht, Kipling/Bellamy, Michael Marra and Sydney
Carter. There's more traditional material on this disc than on its
predecessor - just over half, to my reckoning - against which one or
two of the contemporary choices can seem a mite uninvolved, even
stilted (I'm thinking especially of the two Richard Thompson songs,
Wall Of Death and Al Bowlly's In Heaven: both great songs, but neither
of them entirely convince in an acappella setting to my mind.
Additionally, these tracks, along with a few others, seem to have been
recorded a touch more distantly and with less bloom on the voices.) The
Notts Alliance sound still has a lot to offer however, provided you
accept the inevitable limitations of an all-male ensemble which,
notwithstanding the fine quality of the individual voices and their
command of register and line, can initially give an impression of a
certain flatness, a quality which can be accentuated by the ensemble's
commendable evenness of tone and attack. It's when Notts Alliance are
at their most harmonically beguiling (as on Port Mahon, The Brown And
Yellow Ale and Fare Thee Well My Dearest Dear), and on the solo
performances - Virginia Lags (Stephen), Tom Paget (Chris) and Hostess's
Daughter (Phil) - that the highest degree of listener satisfaction is
obtained. Having said that, the CD as a whole repays careful listening,
for the vocal arrangements are not merely efficient and
well-coordinated but also often surprisingly idiosyncratic, enough so
to hold interest and jolt the listener out of his/her preconceived
notions about which harmonies should work (or not!). Heard live, Notts
Alliance harmonies can sometimes be quite spinechilling, but this
quality doesn't necessarily wholly translate to the medium of CD;
that's an observation rather than a criticism, I hasten to add... I do
have one minus point to make however, which concerns the presentation:
the actual tracklist is confusingly laid out on both box and booklet,
so that the order/numerical sequence of songs is not readily
discernible at a glance.
From Dave Sutherland, Nottingham Evening Post and Traditions at the Tiger
the first album from Notts Alliance in their current format as a three
piece harmony group however I’m sure that the end result would have
made Sid feel proud.
Alliance have a new CD out…
Wonderful harmonies abound (as you'd expect) and the three solo spots (one each) add an interesting variety with every track having a rich and full sound.
If you've seen Notts Alliance perform lately you'll be familiar with most of the tracks on the CD and I really don't think you'll be disappointed when (not if) you buy a copy. "
"This new CD by the four-man team puts them up there with the likes of Coope, Boyes and Simpson - it's that good! The production by John Adams is top notch, too, and a special mention must go to the sound engineer, Matt Bernard, who manages to capture the group's "live" sound perfectly. They could almost be there with you in your own front room.
singing though, by Sid Long, Chris Orme, Phil Hardcastle and Stephen
Bailey, which is so outstanding, helped by a wonderfully eclectic
choice of materal."
chosen is their material and so unpredictable yet well worked are their
harmonies that they imbue the song rather than swamp it and that allows
the song to reach the listener unhindered.
MacColl, Billy Bragg, Maggie Holland, Michael Marra and Pete Morton are
just a few of the names on offer and the interpretations of their songs
are excellent. Their arrangements are cleverly structured and totally
unpredictable which is why they are at the forefront of this country’s
a-capella harmony outfits.
"it is the juxtaposition of old and new; funny and angry; happy and sad that makes the CD interesting and different.
is clear and tuneful with precise diction and some very pleasant
harmonies. ... this CD will appeal to anyone that likes good harmony
singing. I would place them somewhere between Coope, Boyes and Simpson
and an English Barbershop style.
Alliance have a policy of doing "songs which we like", taking in the
works of Pete Morton, Billy Bragg, Maggie Holland, Les Barker and
traditional stuff as well. I particularly like Michael Marra's tale of
a relationship sundered and a record collection divided, Beefheart
and Bones, with the line "We are as alike as Gladys Knight and
Doris Day". Impeccable as the harmonies are, attack is not their thing.
Whether it's John Tams' Scarecrow or Pete Morton's soothing
title track, they keep to pretty much the same, even level. Fine
singing throughout, an open minded approach to repertoire, but moments
of intensity are in short supply.
appreciate the idiom of unaccompanied singing being stretched
intuitively over a wide span of interesting repertoire, then you’re
likely to find much to enjoy in this release."
Out of the Darkness
all, a very enjoyable album, greatly helped, I feel sure, by Barry
Coope's sensitive production. The recent advent of Coope, Boyes, and
Simpson and the Voice Squad have put unaccompanied harmony singing back
in the public eye, and Notts Alliance, though lacking the perfection of
finish of the other two groups, are continuing that process. I know
people who say that CBS are too "smooth", and the Voice Squad too
"churchy" Well, I think they'll like this."
Alliance may follow the well trodden English folk route of four blokes
singing harmony but are open to making modern songs work in their
style. Aside from traditional stuff, there’s two by Pete Morton, ditto
Richard Thompson and John Kirkpatrick’s Old King Coal (a carbonised
John Barleycorn). You’d expect a group of their collective experience
to turn in a decent Derby Ram, as they certainly do, but even better
are two of the contemporary tracks. Jez Lowe’s breezy Durham Gaol ("…I
never was a thief until they caught me") is at the far end of the
personal responsibility acceptance scale from Maggie Holland’s
beautifully written story of guilt by association, Perfumes of Arabia,
but both are sung to maximum effect."
Folk Club 2013
Photos by Andy Basford: www.ursamajor.co.uk