Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Free Folk

Alasdair Roberts - Spoils (Drag City, 2009)

Whilst I’ve liked everything Alasdair Roberts has recorded, both as a solo artist and as Appendix Out, I had a nagging sense that his last album (‘The Amber Gatherers’) was pleasant enough, but added little to his lexicon. Pleasingly, ‘Spoils’ is a rather different beast, filled with tumultuous and inventive language, compelling narratives and free spirited musicianship. It is at once his most intricately arranged and most liberated recording and it’s more than enough to remind me that he is one of the true originals of UK folk music, twisting and turning his traditional inspirations into something radical and involving. His songs demand time and complete attention from the listener – but they certainly repay the effort invested.

With Roberts, we have a troubadour in the original sense – a singer travelling and delivering stories. Roberts avoids all the trappings of the contemporary songwriter. There are no in-depth confessionals or anthems of narcissism. Instead, he inhabits his own world of ‘simulacra’, ‘downtrodden spirits’ and much more besides. On ‘So Bored Was I (Dark Triad)’ he describes himself as ‘bilious and saturnine’. How often are those words used in modern pop? Keeping track of his vocabulary is a challenging task in itself.

It would be easy to criticise Roberts on the basis that little of this can have any real bearing on his contemporary real-life experience. Yet this would miss the point. By delving deep into the Scottish folk tradition and re-imagining it, he has brought his own heritage to dazzling, dizzying life. ‘Spoils’ may well be his best integration of tradition and composition to date and as such it feels like a living, breathing creation rather than a folkloric artefact.

It’s a record that states its intent boldly from the outset. ‘The Flyting of Grief and Joy (Eternal Return)’ is lengthy at over seven minutes but it barely feels long enough to contain all of Roberts’ ideas. Its delicate introduction puts Roberts’ faltering, vulnerable vocal firmly in the foreground, and it remains a beguiling instrument. Any sense of familiarity here is probably a result of the continued presence of Roberts’ Appendix Out colleagues Tom Crossley and Gareth Eggie. Yet the song gradually sprawls into something more unusual, with guitar lines providing counter-melodies and gently rattling percussion from the ingenious Alex Nielsen, before eventually coming full circle with a reiteration of the opening theme.

There’s more of an emphasis on rhythm here than on previous Roberts albums, perhaps as a direct result of Nielsen’s presence. The loose rattle and roll of ‘You Muses Assist’ feels particularly invigorating. The languid opening to ‘Ned Ludd’s Rant’ proves deceptive, the mournful feel giving way to a gentle gallop. Even when the pace is slower and controlled, Nielsen gets a fascinating range of sound from his instruments, contributing as much to the timbre and texture of the songs as to the rhythm.
The result is a sound with recognisable echoes – the guitar language of Richard Thompson particularly – but which also sounds refreshingly peculiar and hypnotic. ‘Hazel Forks’ might be the most conventional thing here, but even this song hardly confines to the structural restrictions of modern pop songcraft. It has the misfortune to share a key lyric with Billy Joel’s ‘Goodnight Saigon’ (we’ll all go down together’) but it’s far from overblown. Its unexpected sidesteps and detours make it more intriguing than confounding.

The album concludes with ‘Under No Enchantment (But My Own)’, one of the prettiest songs Roberts has written, its many melodies combining to produce something thoroughly delightful. It’s a charming end to a restlessly strange, brilliantly performed set of songs. Whilst Roberts has clearly immersed himself in the history of the folk ballad to a degree that the youthful West London folk scene could hardly imagine, he’s also blessed with a unique and enchanting voice and sound that is entirely his own.

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