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Alasdair Roberts, Amble Skuse & David McGuinness Alasdair Roberts, Amble Skuse & David McGuinness
Album: What News
Label: Drag City
Tracks: 8

Alasdair’s latest foray into traditional song – his fourth, I believe – is in one respect exactly the contradiction we’ve come to expect from the man. While it concentrates its focus firmly on his voice and the song, the arrangements are decidedly unorthodox, indeed somewhat radical even by radical standards. It’s the first time that Alasdair has used a keyboard as a central instrument, for a start. Aside from a couple of brief solo electric guitar passages during opening epic ballad The Dun Broon Bride, there’s not a trace of guitar or backing band; instead the settings take the form of primal soundscapes conjured exclusively from keyboards and electronics, and the result is both fresh and almost timelessly traditional, with a distinct hint of otherworldliness that seems to emanate from another dimension altogether.

First impression is that might almost be the last thing you’d expect from Alasdair, given his stern respect for traditional modes of expression and predilection for traditional textures – all despite his perennial thirst for exploration. But keyboards can also be the province of the classicist and the antiquary, and David McGuinness, one of Alasdair’s collaborators here (with whom Alasdair had worked before including on his 2009 Spoils album), is an early music scholar and director of the Concerto Caledonia ensemble, thus securing his credentials for Alasdair’s latest project. Here David plays two completely different pianos – a fortepiano and a grand – and, on Rosie Anderson, a dulcitone (a strange keyboard instrument whose unique sound, rather like an antique celeste, comes from striking tuning forks – not strings – with felt hammers). It might be thought, then, that these three keyboard instruments would make ill-fitting bedfellows for electronic sounds – and yet the careful treatments conjured by sonologist Amble Skuse are anything but awkward, indeed tremendously subtle and/or sparing for the most part. Slightly uncomfortable at times, yes (ominous rumblings, or on occasion for instance eerily scratching like some kind of supernatural insect) – but also at times curiously calming; and invariably subliminal and (unlike the work of so many electronics practitioners) not over-cluttering or dominating the texture. This element, together with the similarly uncluttered keyboard parts, ensures that the song and the voice have room to breathe and tell their story. Neil McDermott’s crisp engineering of the album helps too, of course.

Here, then, are beautifully realised accounts of six Child ballads and two Scottish songs, compelling in both atmosphere and momentum. Highlights for me were the aforementioned Dun Broon Bride and Rosie Anderson, Long A-Growing (a version learnt from Alex Campbell no less) and Babylon (a version of The Bonnie Banks O’ Fordie), with the definitive album standout being a fantastic ten-minute realisation of Clerk Colven whose bleak, sparse texturing proves the ideal foil for the storytelling and gives the ballad a unique new perspective with its uneasy shifting electronic interjections set against the restless piano chimings.

The carefully managed delicacy of the backdrops feels absolutely right for the stories that Alasdair’s so keen to communicate. It’s clear that he draws his expressive inspiration from noted Scottish traditional singers like Jeannie Robertson, Lizzie Higgins, Duncan Williamson and Elizabeth and Sheila Stewart, but his stated sources range wider – recordings of Stanley Robertson, Jean Redpath, Ellen Mitchell, Gordeanna McCulloch and Jock Duncan – and all the while he makes these tales his own in the telling. He dynamically fuses the ancient with the modern, in other words. What news, indeed – a most impressive achievement.

David Kidman