Chris Foster,
Traces
(Green Man, 1999)

Chris Foster take an unadorned and straightforward approach to Traces, a collection of mostly traditional songs. Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, Foster begins with "The Bold Princess Royal," a song about a ship pursued by pirates. The guitar line is a bright and bell-like counterpoint highlighted by Mick Strode's slide guitar. Foster goes straight into a jaunty rendition of "Arthur MacBride," sung serenely and steadily against a rollicking guitar line. "When a Man's in Love" is a lilting, lovely song about two lovers reunited on a moonlit night that is above the typical of its type.

Two of the songs are sung a capella: "Jack Barleycorn Must Die," about the life, death and rebirth of barley into beer, and "The Flying Cloud," a cautionary song about a young man who goes to sea on a slave ship, then later turns to piracy before his unhappy end. The unadorned style suits both songs, even though they are very different in tone, melody and content.

Most of the tracks are traditional songs, and while some might be familiar, such as "Jack Barleycorn" or "The Raggle Taggle Gypsies," some are less well known. "The Flower of Serving Men" is an appealing song in which a lady disguises herself as a serving man and runs away after her mother arranges for the murder of her (the lady's) husband and children -- and from the sound of it, she intends to stay that way. "The Coast of Peru" tells a story about a whale hunt while "The Fowler" is about a very unusual trial following an accidental shooting. In "The Ranter," a clever farmer's wife turns the tables on a lecherous minister and gives him a stinging sendoff.

"Barney's Epic Homer" is by Leon Rosselson and concerns Barney, a young man who marches to his own drummer and who seems doomed to a job on an assembly line "Turning little piggies into / Plastic packaged sausages / To sell in the heliport canteen." One day, he finds a means of expression, which, sadly, is deemed unacceptable. Still, you cheer for Barney and perhaps resolve to try to see the world a little more through his eyes.

"Flying High, Flying Free," also by Rosselson, expresses longing for the freedom of the swallow. The soaring, exuberant melody, the deft guitar accompaniment and the sheer poetry of the lyrics easily make this my favorite track.

Foster's voice is slightly rough-hewn and full-bodied. His straightforward approach is appealing and thoughtful, and the simplicity of his style is inviting. If you like your folk music polished but not glossy, then Traces is for you.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]



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