It’s sometimes tough keeping up with Alasdair Roberts. Preternaturally prolific and the keenest of collaborators, he appears on more releases in the average year than many artists manage in a decade. Following the maze of his recorded material from his beginnings as Appendix Out to the present day requires both patience and a willingness to do a bit of research, but it is always worth it in the end – every new record Roberts makes, solo or otherwise, seems to be highly original and carefully crafted.
The latest in a long line is a collaboration with James Green from the Big Eyes Family Players (a band who have also worked with James Yorkston, another prolific Scot). Green is an aficionado of one of the folk music world’s weirder instruments, the harmoniflute, a thing so obscure it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. The harmoniflute combines elements of the accordion and the harmonium but it creates its own distinctly wheezy sound, and is partly responsible for pleasingly antique feel of Plaint Of Lapwing.
But the album is far more than just an exercise in resurrecting a half-forgotten musical instrument. Originally planned as a four-track EP, the project grew as Green’s friendship with Roberts flourished. Simple compositions for harmoniflute and voice were fleshed out with drums, guitar and piano, new songs emerged and old ones reimagined, and a fully grown album was born.
Some of the earliest tracks to take shape were originally out-takes from Roberts’ 2013 album A Wonder Working Stone, and hints of the cosmological and cosmogonic themes of that record are tangible throughout Plaint Of Lapwing, as are the surprising juxtapositions that have become a hallmark of Roberts’ work. Anankë is a story of Greek cosmology wedded to a simple but powerful Bavarian folk tune, while Peacock Strut somehow manages to link theoretical evolutionary biology with English traditional singing and Scottish pipe music. Roberts has argued that folk music must evolve and remain relevant and Peacock Strut, possibly more than anything else he has yet come up with, is the sound of him putting his money where his mouth is. And then there is At The Mid Hour Of The Night, another example of Roberts’ magpie-like attitude to adapting songs. This one is a simple arrangement of Benjamin Britten’s setting of a Thomas Moore poem.
But to focus solely on the varied provenance of the material is, however interesting, missing the point. This is no dry history lesson. Roberts and Green are re-enlivening old forms, not – to paraphrase Bob Dylan – analysing or categorising them, so the performance is as important as the choice of material. This is where Green’s contribution becomes crucial. We get less of Roberts’ trademark acoustic guitar than in many of his recent records: instead the songs often hang together on Green’s harmoniflute (and his many other contributions). Boy Of Blazing Brow, for example, is lyrically inspired by Romanian religious historian Mircea Eliade, but musically it bounds along like a stripped-back take on seventies folk-rock. Ballad Of The Speaking Heart a translation of a French poem which itself seems to have been influenced by an older ballad form. Set on a bedrock of drone and given a surprise electric guitar solo, it feels timeless.
Roberts does occasionally bring out the acoustic guitar, as on The Evening Is Growing Dim, which builds a delicate fingerpicked web. An old Roberts composition, to which he has been returning for years, it has finally been given what feels like a definitive recording. It is Green’s backing that elevates it though,with what sounds like the ghostly, gauzy cousin to Al Kooper’s Hammond organ on Blonde On Blonde.
The album’s centrepiece – The Left-Hand Man – rests on piano chords and a circular refrain from that weird, organ-like harmoniflute. An archetypal narrative penned by artist and writer Timothy Neat, it comes across as a kind of Scottish pagan version of The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest. It bulges with eldritch detail. The title track returns us to Roberts’ preoccupation with the history of religion, as seen through the dualistic nature of (and treatment of) the lapwing, while The Wronged Blacksmith is a perfect example of Roberts’ uncanny ability to create a song of his own that sounds familiar, traditional and universal using the barest of ingredients – in this case a half-remembered tune from his childhood.
I have written before that Roberts is one of our most talented, important and relevant songwriters and song-adapters, and this album does nothing to change that view. It is typically bold, distinctive and refreshing. It also proves he has an unerring ear for a successful collaboration. The importance of the unorthodox and sometimes frankly odd sounds added by Green cannot be overstated – they are further evidence that folk can and must adapt to – even embody – change.
Plaint of Lapwing is Out Now via Claypipe Music
Ltd Edition Vinyl Copies here: www.claypipemusic.co.uk