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Pete Coutts Pete Coutts
Album: Northern Sky
Label: Fitlike
Tracks: 11
Website: http://petecoutts.bandcamp.com

Northern Sky is the debut solo album from Aberdeen musician Pete Coutts. However, Pete is no stranger to the music scene and has been a live force in Aberdeen and beyond for over a decade, either solo or in various collaborations.

Although not thematic as such, the album never the less has a strong narrative inspired by tunes and tales from North East Scotland's fishing and farming communities.

With the exception of the title track, Nick Drake's Northern Sky, a co-write and the borrowing of a tune for 'Belhelvie', all songs are Pete Coutts originals. The CD was recorded by Ali Hutton and Jonny Hardie between them and produced by Pete himself.

Musically, Pete provides vocals, guitar and mandolin. In addition, some of Scotland's finest players, including Ali Hutton, pipes, whistles, guitars, Jonny Hardie, fiddle, Brian McAlpine, accordion and Martin O'Neill, bodhran, also join him.

Opening track 'Allathumpach' comes in on a tight, percussive guitar piece which heralds some lovely, alternating instrumentation that turn this into a shifting, restless tune that touches all sorts of musical bases. One second distinctly Celtic in feel, the next maybe more Americana and then all stately and traditional. This is a great way of introducing the band!

'Sail & Oar' has a picked mandolin intro over some suitably seafaring seagull cries before the ensemble playing once more brings the song in on a melody strong enough to be the basis of a tune in itself. Pete's vocal jumps aboard at around 35 seconds and his voice is perfect for this sound, strong, clear, windswept and boasting the strongest of Scottish brogues. So strong is this that at times I genuinely could not decipher what he was saying, although this in no way detracted from the listening pleasure and rather added to the atmosphere!

'In & Oot' is another strong, traditional sounding tune whilst a couple of tracks later 'Villa Rosa' skates in on a glorious drone, mandolin and all sorts of vaguely eastern vibes that could easily have been latter day Robert Plant and The Sensational Space Shifters! It settles a little in a fashion that is more obvious, but all the time seems to want to break out into something more diverse, which creates a lovely musical tension.

To my ears, this standard is maintained throughout the album with lots of musical twists and turns to keep the listener hooked in.

In a set of strong songs, Pete's cover of Nick Drakes 'Northern Sky' and the penultimate song 'Will Ye Byde' are two more stand out tracks. With 'Northern Sky' he brings a sense of longing and hope to a song that is more often characterised by Nick's bleakness and desolation, while 'Will Ye Byde' occupies more straightforward folk territory. This is a sparsely accompanied, narrative number with Pete's courtly vocal strongly on top of the mix. As a song, it also manages that feat of sounding somehow familiar and known; to the extent that I had to keep checking the sleeve notes to confirm it was an original and not something traditional!

I enjoyed this record a lot and whilst the music hints at all sorts of musical bases and genres, at its heart is the strongest sense of location and tradition. With the instrumental tunes, Pete displays a lovely sense of melody whilst in the sung tracks that melody still prevails and is supported by his strong, authoritative voice. All the tracks are sympathetically recorded and produced and the ensemble playing throughout is splendid.

So, this first album might have been a long time coming but the depth and sense of identity found here are testament to the previous decades worth of playing. This sort of acuity and quiet dignity can only be borne out of experience and as always with music this good, it would be a further pleasure to hear it live.

Paul Jackson