Alasdair Roberts, Amble Skuse & David McGuinness – What News
Drag City – 23 March 2018
I’m not sure what Alasdair Roberts‘ problem is, but the man seems very reluctant these days to just make a straight up folk album. That’s not to say that What News, Roberts’ fourth album to focus exclusively on traditional song, messes around with the tunes themselves, but it certainly throws a curve ball at the arrangements. Where last year’s Pangs record incorporated the use of a full band, with glockenspiel and flute working alongside electric guitars to great effect, here Roberts has taken an instrumental back seat and focused solely on the singing, while employing David McGuinness to play keyboards and sonologist Amble Skuse to structure soundscapes using electronic methods. The result is magical, clean and refreshing.
The boldness is evident from the start, with Skuse’s camera shutter effects introducing McGuinness’ clear piano playing before Alasdair’s voice comes in to sing Scottish tune ‘The Dun Broon Bride’. What becomes clear early on in this recording is that Alasdair’s aim is to have the vocal and the song standing firmly in the foreground while the duo of arrangers work their magic behind him. And having just keys and electronics (an electric guitar also slips briefly into ‘Johnny O’ the Brine’) creating this tapestry leaves plenty of space in the sound for the words of these wonderful old stories to really sink in. In many ways it’s a very simple approach to creating a record, but when the songs stand so proudly and are ample enough to be sang unaccompanied, it is an inspired decision not to overfill.
It is also a decision that demands subtlety in its production, which is something this experienced trio have no trouble with. ‘Rosie Anderson’, a gently tragic Broadside ballad telling the story of a young wife (many believe falsely) accused of adultery with a Lord who escorted her home and stole a kiss. The disgraced and doomed lady is exiled to London, pregnant with her husband’s child, where her fate awaits. The band takes a sympathetic stance in the music here and instead of a mournful piano arrangement, McGuinness instead plays the melody on his own circa-1920 Glaswegian Dulcitone, a keyed instrument that plays tuning forks instead of strings; the result is an almost childlike tone which cleverly evokes the vulnerability of the poor scorned wife. It’s one of many examples of delicately manipulating a small range of instruments to create a desired mood for the song.
But better still is the lovely ‘Clerk Colvin’, a ten-minute epic also dealing with the consequences of adultery, this time the two-timing Colvin who, against the advice of his wife, is seduced by a mermaid, who serves him his comeuppance in a deadly poisoning. The piano here is sparse and sits behind Roberts’ vocal, along with an eerie scratchy effect which does well to accentuate the supernatural elements of this version of an old ballad that, like ‘Rosie’, divides the audience. Many believe Colvin to be a typical adulterer who gladly falls for the charms of the beautiful mermaid, whereas others feel the maid bewitches the Clerk (else why would she be a mythical being?). We can but listen and decide (it’s part of the fun of traditional songs), all the while feeling grateful that these valuable stories are being treated with such care and skill to create, in What News, a set of minimalist music and vocal clarity that is starkly beautiful in all its boldness.
What News is released on March 23rd via Drag City
The What News album launch will take place at The Glad Cafe, Glasgow on Tuesday 27th March. Cucina Povera will perform an opening set.
What News is a triumph – a masterpiece; a powerful and intriguing album that demands and holds your attention. Album of the Year? Album of the Decade, I’d say. Shirley Collins
Photo Credits: Alex Woodward