Watherson: Carthy, Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man (Topic Records, 2006)

Norma Waterson was renowned for being part of the English family folk group The Watersons when she married guitarist Martin Carthy. Carthy had built up a large reputation in folk circles as a solo artist, in duets with legendary English fiddler Dave Swarbrick, and as a member of the folk/rock outfit Steeleye Span. (From a pop perspective, his claim to fame is that he taught Paul Simon how to play "Scarborough Fair" when Simon lived in London for a year in the early sixties.) The Watersons regrouped in 1972 after a brief hiatus with Carthy joining them, and Waterson and Carthy have been musical as well as romantic partners ever since. For the past decade, that has meant performing as the group Waterson: Carthy with their fiddling daughter Eliza Carthy and more recently with accordionist Tim van Eyken. Their latest project, called Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man, compiles secular and religious traditional English songs celebrating Christmas and the New Year. The vocal group The Devil's Interval joins Waterson: Carthy for many of the pieces, providing extra punch to some big, sing-along choruses.

Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man largely succeeds because of the fun, celebratory feel of many of the songs. While the harmonies in the group sing-a-longs could have been tighter, they do convey to the listener the sense of being at a feast in an old hall during the holiday season. None of the material would be immediately obvious to a pop music fan, although a few of the melodies are structured similarly to "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." Martin Carthy's voice unfortunately shows some wear, but Waterson's distinctively jovial voice remains firmly intact and carries much of the album. The quieter material on the album is dominated by a pair of songs sung by Eliza, "Jack Frost" and the gospel song "Gloryland." Eliza continues to ably balance her fine solo career with her work with her parents, and shines in both contexts.

The music of Waterson: Carthy is unrepentantly traditional. Fans of old English folk songs, especially the Christmas carols, will enjoy Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man. Given how the same Christmas songs tend to get played over and over again starting earlier in November every year, whether they're any good or not, Waterson: Carthy breath some life into a wholly stagnant genre ironically by resurrecting older material that actually has some quality to it.

Overall grade: B

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