Alasdair Roberts, Amble Skuse & David McGuinness - What News

by Bill Golembeski Rating:9 Release Date:2018-03-23
Alasdair Roberts, Amble Skuse & David McGuinness - What News
Alasdair Roberts, Amble Skuse & David McGuinness - What News

This album is definitive proof that parallel universes do exist.

What News is a record of very beautiful traditional Scottish folk songs by Alasdair Roberts, he of Appendix Out and solo fame. His other records tend to be lo-fi alt folk. Those are nice slowly paced records, but this album is a bit of a surprise with the addition of David McGuinness who plays a sweet sounding “1844 grand pianoforte” a “fortepiano of recent vintage,” and a “circa-1920 Dulcitone, a Glaswegian keyboard that plays tuning forks instead of strings.” I don’t know about any of that. I just really like the sound of the keyboards. And then there is Amble Skuse, “whose work involves interactive performance treatments.” Sure. By the way, I took those quotes from a press release. Again, I don’t know about any of that, but I really like this record.

The first song, “The Dun Broon Bride,” is suddenly catchy. Alasdair Roberts’ vocals are weary, passionate, and very melodic. Again, the keyboards sound sweetly aged by time. And Amble Skuse’s “treatments” never get in the way of the tune, and perhaps, add an edge to the music. There’s also a lovely bit of electric guitar, that is sadly absent from the rest of the album.

And just so you know, the plot of “The Dun Broon Bride” is basically about a guy named Lord Thomas who has to decide between two women. There’s Fair Annie, who doesn’t have a lot of land or houses, and then there’s “Dun Broon” girl, who just happens to have a lot of land and houses. His mom tells him to go for “Dun Broon” girl,” because, well, she has land and houses. But then Fair Annie gets invited to the wedding, which is a big mistake because upon arrival, she gets in an argument with “Dun” girl, who then proceeds to kill Fair Annie with a penknife. At the sight of this, of course, Lord Thomas, who apparently made the wrong choice of a bride, gets all vengeful and kills “Dun Broon Bride.” There’s no mention of the honeymoon, because obviously, that never happened.

This whole album is filled with such tragedy. I suppose you either love this stuff or you don’t. I do. And I remember the first time I diligently tried to follow the gist of Fairport’s “Matty Groves,” the convoluted tale of “Tam Lin,” and the sad story of “Crazy Man Michael.”

So, yeah. As Gerry and the Pacemakers (and The Rezillos) once sang, “I Like It.”

“Johnny O the Brine” gets dramatic during its six minute plus duration, and quite frankly, is a long way from the lo-fi music I expected. And Alasdair Roberts, with these tunes, has presented himself as a vocalist of Scottish folk distinction.

“Young Johnstone” is another sad traditional ballad, and, to make a long story short, it involves people falling in love, but then some of them die. So it goes.

“Clerk Colven” (also Colvill) is given a spooky ten-minute vocal, piano, and unearthly sound treatment. This one is the age-old tale of seduction. And, to make that seduction even more sinister, the story involves infidelity with a mermaid who has a fatal kiss. So fair warning to unfaithful husbands everywhere who have a fondness for evil supernatural sea creatures.  

The entire album is a melodic and quite arty take on tradition. “Rosie Anderson,” “The Fair Flower of Northumberland,” “Babylon,” and “Long-A-Growing” are all cut from the same ancient and tragic tapestry. That final song, “Long-A-Growing,” is also known as “The Trees They Do Grow High,” which is a staple of so many folk albums, and the only footprint I can find here of the iconic father of folk Scottish music, Robert Burns, who used a similar story for his poem, “Lady Mary Ann.”

As reference points, this album, with its Scot dialect and simplistically played tuneful melodies, stands with the likes of Dick Gaughan’s first record No More Forever and Archie Fisher’s Will Ye Gang Love. That’s saying quite a bit, but this is a good traditional folk record.

So, this is the real deal. The songs unravel slowly with patient attention paid to the guts of the Scottish folk tradition. There is deep pathos in these tales of murder, deceit, thwarted love, mistrust, and, of course, the perils of being seduced by the wiles of an evil mermaid. This isn’t the music of big media or auto-tuned talent. It’s music from a parallel universe, a deeply passionate universe of worlds that spin with vibrations and still echo, bend, and dance to sad tales that are as timeless as all the stars in any night sky and where songs like these, thankfully, continue to be sung.

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