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Robin Laing Robin Laing
Album: Whisky And Death
Label: Frisky Whisky
Tracks: 15

Though long regarded as one of Scotland’s premier folk singer-songwriters, Robin’s never confined himself to his nation’s traditions for inspiration – except in his extensive and genuinely learnèd exploration of its national beverage, whisky. This fascination, nay obsession, has resulted in four CDs for the Greentrax label, culminating in 2014’s Whisky For Breakfast, plus three books (of which The Whisky Muse in particular has provided me, dram in hand, with many hours of interest and amusement).

So here is CD number five in the series, which Robin hints will be his last on the theme, at least if one is to take the title’s implicit foreboding literally. It’s actually quite an upbeat collection of whisky-related songs, where the grim reaper features somewhat less than one might reasonably expect, or at least marginalised or made gentle or cautious fun of. (Oh, and other alcoholic beverages make a token appearance from time to time… )

Eleven of the disc’s 15 songs are Robin’s own compositions, informed by his love of whisky of course and his experiences of whisky tasting the world over (he’s rightly regarded as one of the world’s foremost experts on whisky) and invariably laced with his delicious wit and often well-barbed sense of humour. Pestering Jim, a canny and richly deserved tribute to whisky guru and cask whisperer Jim McEwan, uses a traditional lilting tune (no prizes for guessing which!!), but all other songs are exclusively Robin’s work, and replete with those priceless turns of phrase for which Robin’s renowned. He also makes use of a variety of musical idioms, many of which are drawn from outwith even the usual broad church of folk. Don’t be surprised to find the setting embracing mariachi trumpet (The Sentosa Sails Away), full-on rock band (the title song), or hymnal piano. The latter underpins the delightful, if whimsical Whisky Cathedral with its “heavenly” litanies and a delicious playfulness that typifies Robin’s proven expertise in creating lovingly poetic wordplay. The dreamy Slow As Molasses takes a lazily jazzy stance on a whisky-soaked rumination (perhaps drawing a little on Black Is The Colour for the contours of its melody). Several of the album’s songs draw directly on Robin’s personal memories of specific people, places or events, but his artistry brings these alive in a refreshingly non-exclusive way.

The album’s non-originals come off really well too, notably Guy Clark’s poignant classic Hemingway’s Whiskey and Brad Paisley’s country-styled Whiskey Lullaby, while McGinty’s Meal And Ale is a lengthy, and sometimes almost impenetrable, narrative (Robin’s notes helpfully provide a link to a “translation”!). Last but not least, the album’s closing track, the multi-authored Americana-flavoured All Summer Long, brings the album to a fittingly reminiscent conclusion.

The album is a mix of large-scale and small-scale arrangements, and producer David Scott ably calls on a number of talented musicians and singers (including Jenna Reid, Kevan O’Reilly and Conor Smith) to flesh out the basic track. The sessions were evidently good-time, and you can certainly feel the spirit (pun intended!), although some of the fuller production scorings do feel a tad over-arranged to my mind, and it’s a pity that Robin’s own limpid guitar playing is now absent from the finished product (he confines himself to singing here). But it’s clear that Robin’s self-styled “whisky muse” hasn’t deserted him yet, for this album delivers another aromatic and vibrant collection of whisky-fuelled songs. And all the lyrics are available on his website too, by the way.

David Kidman