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Bargain Bin Babylon: The Cutting Edge: A Selection of Contemporary British Roots Music

Bargain Bin Babylon: The Cutting Edge: A Selection of Contemporary British Roots Music

A gorgeous survey of something whose musical reach should go far beyond its seemingly narrow target audience.

It’s got a terrible cover and a generic title, which I wouldn’t blame you for passing over in the bargain bin. But the Cooking Vinyl anthology The Cutting Edge: , released in 1987 and going for peanuts, is a gorgeous survey of something whose musical reach should go far beyond its seemingly narrow target audience.

Who were they trying to target with that cover illustration of a spiky-haired fiddle player anyway? The graphics are an example of the ‘80s at their worst, but the music, now 30 years old, has barely dated. That’s something of an accomplishment for a comp driven by a diverse approach to roots music, playing fast and loose with tradition but consistently rewarding and enduring. And within its niche, the variety on display is such that the album plays like a wildly inventive mix-tape.

The album opens with a song that goes back to Shakespeare, who reportedly quoted it. “Hal-an-Tow” has opened the May festival in Helston, Cornwall for hundreds of years; folk-punkers Oysterband turn this ancient air into an electric rave-up, power chords irresistibly ringing out a cold winter and welcoming the summertime.

The effortless genius of the compilers lead this into the comp‘s best-known group, the Mekons, with “I Can’t Find My Money,” which may not be the strongest choice from the band at that time, but its reggae-fied beat quickly establishes the genre-jumping at work even within the confines of new British roots music.

Such segues are typical of the album. The acapella anti-Apartheid song “Sea Never Dry, from Malcolm’s Interview (later called God’s Little Monkeys) is a stirring, earnest protest; the lyrics seem thoroughly unpromising on paper: “Do you think there’ll ever be changes/ In the way the economy’s run?/ Do you think they’ll ever see the misery and degradation/ Their political system has sown?” Yet the group’s harmonies turn that sows’ ear into a beautiful silk purse.

That leads directly into the Mekons-adjacent Edward II and the sly instrumental “The Walls of Butlins,” which leads to another radical shift, Clive Gregson and Christine Collister’s aching ballad “We’re Not Over Yet.” It’s one of a few tracks here that are available in other recorded versions, but this acoustic demo is superior to the more easily found version with a full band.

The B-side leans a little more to traditional roots, with Rory McLeod’s harmonica-driven shuffle “Baksheesh Dance,” but even Mark T. and the Brickbats’ warbling “Green Brooms” gets a punky energy out of its acoustic instruments. Pressgang’s buoyant “Flanders” uses a modern, hooky roots tune to lament their love’s departure for a World War I battle. On one of the sets most delightful tracks, the Deighton Family’s “Forked Deer,” a Yorkshire folk group takes an ancient fiddle standard typically used to demonstrate string proficiency and makes it an easygoing swing. The album ends with a kind of mystical shift, with Andrew Cronshaw’s ethereal instrumental “A Debatable Land.”

I wish I could tell you to track this down on your nearest streaming service, but the album features performances that I can’t find online anywhere. The YouTube link below launches a playlist that is my best attempt to piece it together from available sources, using different artists and recordings where necessary. But to hear this terrific collection, you’ll just have to track down the vinyl in the wild. Fortunately, that will maybe cost you a few bucks at most. And please–tell me if you find my copy; I’ve misplaced it, its music still rattling around my head and wandering about on scattered cassette mixes, some 30 years after I first heard it.

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