Andrew, as founder and owner of the well-respected independent label Waterbug, has over the past couple of decades been responsible for introducing to the world a number of excellent singer-songwriters (himself included). And - unassumingly and almost incidentally - releasing a healthy series of solo records (ten at the last count, I think) - of which one, Telfer's Cows, was a collection of traditional Scottish ballads. Traditional balladry has been a lifelong passion of Andrew's, and Rhymer's Tower is a more ambitious and exhaustive collection of ancient ballads that stretches to two well-filled discs. The set is helpfully, and accurately, subtitled Ballads of the Anglo-Scottish Border; for these texts depict, or mark, events that took place during the period between 1250 and 1600 - historical battles, rivalries and all, depicted in what Andrew terms "themes of terrorism and trust (that) speak across time". Tucked within the package is a useful hand-drawn map of the Border lands, which puts the geography of the ballads into useful perspective. Many of the ballad texts will have familiarity for folksong enthusiasts, and to his credit Andrew has developed his performing versions from the authentic texts that he's copiously researched with all due integrity.
Whether these ballads be familiar, like The Two Ravens (Twa Corbies), and The Rose Of Yarrow (The Dowie Dens Of Yarrow), or comparatively unfamiliar, like Flodden Field or Dick Of The Broom, Andrew invariably ensures they come up fresh here, and one ballad (The Death Of Parcy Reed) has a distinctly strange melody that feels anything but right, even on repeated play. Although the whole corpus of songs is of serious import, Andrew does introduce some welcome contrast with the occasional change of pace, as on the more animated jailbreak-ballad Jock O' The Side (one of the ballads to adopt a nonsense refrain), one of the ballads of the 16th century Armstrong clan included here. This is one of just three selections which Andrew sings unaccompanied, by the way (and very well too). It clocks in at nine minutes - which is not unusual on this set, where the longest ballads unashamedly enjoy durations of 10, 11 and 16 minutes and tend to take as long as they need to take, whereas only two last under four minutes and several others extend to 6, 7 and 8 minutes apiece. Hodie Noble, another unaccompanied rendition, wears its ten minutes well too, and gains extra interest from its wayward, tricky melody. The Rookhope Ryde, done as a recitation, is, however, significantly shorter.
The whole project is a definite labour of love for Andrew (it was five years in the making), and his enterprise and commitment in making it happen is to be heartily commended, even if the end product may not be to everyone's taste. For Andrew's modus operandi is admirably straightforward, his approach unadorned (only his humble, unprepossessingly adept guitar accompaniment) and highly concentrated, but his rich, florid vocal delivery is unvarying and might be thought unyielding, probably homogeneous to a fault (even speaking as a lover of ballad singing, I find it at times unrelieved). Although Andrew's interpretations are respectful and thoughtfully considered, the overall tenor of his performances might be thought to have a whiff of academe, possibly more akin to art-song than folk-song. In both his unfussy style and evident sense of commitment Andrew might be regarded as old-school revivalist even, were it not for the overwhelming sense of uncomplicated natural scholarship that pervades the enterprise. In a way, then, this album is beyond critical appraisal, in that it could not be reimagined in any other way and artistic compromise or experimentation is (commendably) outwith Andrew's radar. In the final analysis, I suspect, Rhymer's Tower will be regarded as an album to admire rather than to outwardly enjoy; although not necessarily an album that will convert the novice to the delights of the ancient ballads, this kind of laudable project will always have a place in folk scholarship.
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