Judy's a name from the past who today retains considerable contemporary cult cred. Yes, she was the original lead vocalist with Fairport Convention, who subsequently co-founded Trader Horne and crossed paths with many prog and rock legends before taking well over two decades out from music, only returning to appear at the special Fairport anniversary edition of Cropredy in 1997. Not too long after that momentous occasion, however, Judy made a fabulous comeback with a trilogy of brilliant albums in collaboration with Marc Swordfish, then an acclaimed single with The Conspirators and finally the 2009 album Talking With Strangers, on which she gathered together a batch of brand new songs co-written (co-conceived) with No-Man's Tim Bowness and Cromer Museum's Alistair Murphy. Its spellbinding musical and spiritual vision made for an intelligent mix of psych-folk, retro and prog which paved the way for what seemed an exciting new direction, its textures lush and heady yet with strands keenly, crisply separated by virtue of abundantly imaginative scoring and an adept use of new technology.
So while we're all waiting with bated breath for the release of Judy's next album (Flow And Change, due later this year), it makes sense to reissue Talking With Strangers - and not just to enable its re-evaluation and availability for new fans in the States. In the end, it now proves more than a useful stop-gap-cum-catch-up, for this reissue appends two bonus tracks (Sparkling and Waiting), which had originally appeared as 2010's limited-edition Fragile EP. These were recorded at the same time as the album, with the same musicians, and continue and develop the experimental mood of the album, especially its wondrous closing 19-minute epic Harpsong (wherein Wyrd-folk met nascent prog-rock head-on, and survived magnificently). For those who didn't get round to purchasing the original TWS album at the time, there will be many delights to discover here, in the combination of Judy's still-so-magical voice and signature autoharp playing with the musicianship of (among others) Robert Fripp, Ian McDonald, Simon Nicol and Tim Bowness.
The album proved all the more extraordinary an achievement for having been recorded remotely - using Tim and Alistair's technological expertise in giving Judy's songs wings in order to fly, in contributions from all over the globe. These came from near at hand (Simon Nicol, Jacqui McShee, Julianne Regan, Robert Fripp), France (Celia Humphris), and the USA (Ian McDonald, Pat Mastelotto), while the list of other musicians involved included Mark Fletcher, Laurie A'Court, Rachel Hall, Sanchia Pattinson and at least four guitarists! The triumphant accumulation of all this talent at the service of Judy's vision was also a celebration of the power of musical creativity that has become a constant for Judy personally, conjoining then and now and the future and becoming an overpowering life-mantra.
Additionally, intensely attractive artwork is still a major unifying feature of the package. Interestingly, though, for this reissue the striking, slightly Beardsley-creepy original designs have been replaced by completely new illustrations (by Jackie Morris and Jill Swarbrick); and although all the text has been retained (and re-set), the extra tracks don't even get a mention, let alone credits or lyrics, within the re-designed booklet, which is a pity. It's also curious that these bonus cuts come across at a slightly higher volume, and with an even sharper presence, than the original album tracks. The above points notwithstanding, Talking With Strangers is a glorious record that you really ought to have in your collection, in whatever incarnation.