Those of us of a certain age will possibly remember the budget Hallmark record label from the 1970s (and possibly 1980s).
Chiefly remembered for putting pneumatic young girls in spandex clothing on albums of diabolical cover versions such as the deathlessly titled Top of The Pops Volume 23, Hallmark nonetheless had a couple of gems lurking in there as well. One was Tony Hancock's The Radio Ham/Blood Donor disc, the other was catalogue number SHM-813: All Our Own Work – Sandy Denny With The Strawbs.
Long unavailable on both CD and vinyl, Witchwood has now issued a remastered version of the album (WMCD2047), with rather satisfying results.
Released in 1973 on the back of The Strawbs' rise in popularity following such albums as Dragonfly and From The Witchwood, All Our Own Work was recorded by the fledgling band in Copenhagen in 1967, and is the only recording featuring Denny with the group. Sandy left shortly afterwards to pursue a career with Fairport Convention and two luminaries of the British folk movement went different ways.
Make no mistake, this is a very special record, with the original pressings now changing hands for ever increasing sums of money. It's been on CD before – courtesy of Joe Boyd's Hannibal imprint – but was deleted fairly rapidly afterwards, with (again) the inevitable price rise.
The quality of the Hannibal pressing also lost a lot in translation, with the wide-eyed, roughnecked sound of the original vinyl pressing being heavily compressed and glossed over.
What it captures is two great talents working in parallel for a short and magical while. Dave Cousins' blend of folk-pop and traditional melodies were the perfect vehicle for Denny's gorgeous and emotive voice and on such songs as the fast-paced and swinging On My Way*, with its raga guitar break, or the delicate Tell Me What You See In Me, she really shines.
Elsewhere on the album you‚'ve got echoes of the Kinks (How Everyone But Tom Was A Hypocrite), and Donovan (Sweetling) together with banjo-worrying workouts such as Wild Strawberries, a hangover from the group's formation as the Strawberry Hill Boys.
There are no electrics here: merely acoustic guitar, double bass, drums and the occasional bongo or sitar, while the roughness of the sound – this was recorded on basic three-track equipment in a cinema – emphasises the carefree and loose-footed magic of the songs.
These wouldn't have worked so well in a studio with a full production, and Denny's voice works best when pushed and prodded after a hard night's singing at the Tivoli Gardens the previous evening, producing a raw, earthy and yet melodious sound that is bewitching.
Interestingly several of the songs also included here along the basic originals have had orchestration added, or in one case, a sitar, but as a rule they work better unvarnished and left-alone.
It's hard to pick out favourites on an album so full of quality material, but Denny's own Who Knows Where The Time Goes, later covered by Judy Collins as well as being re-recorded by Denny herself with the Fairports, is a stand-out, as are the bouncing All I Need Is You** and Sandy's lusty version of Nothing Else Will Do.
You also get a few bonuses – as with most re-pressings these days – and they're more then welcome here, with early versions of Pieces of 79 & 15*** and I've Been My Own Worst Friend particularly notable.
If, like me, you've literally played your poor-quality vinyl of this album to death****, then you're in for a real treat with these re-masters. If you're discovering this record for the first time, sit back and enjoy the ride.
*This version of On My Way is described by Dave Cousins as 'swinging like the clappers' in his sleevenotes to the double album of demos Preserves Uncanned. He's right, it does.
**Also on Preserves Uncanned, this originally featured a peculiar mariachi style break in the middle. Mercifully that was left out here.
***Sadly this wasn't recorded with Denny, which was a shame as it would have suited her voice perfectly. It re-emerged in sublime demo form on Uncanned and a more glossy recording on the Strawbs first album (for A&M) in 1969.
****I have. Three times in fact. This is most annoying for a journalist on a budget when the dodgy Hallmark originals are changing hands at around £15 a pop. I bought my first copy of this at 18 after being played it by my musical guru‚ Dave Barker, thus setting me on a long, supremely expensive, but jolly interesting folk path. Thanks Dave.