Alasdair Roberts and Friends – A Wonder Working Stone – 2013 – Drag City Records

I don’t think I have done a folk album yet and I’ve chosen a real beauty today and a folk album that is decidedly weird. This is a record that to me sounds almost supernatural in places. Alasdair Roberts is a Scottish songwriter and here he is working with of excellent musicians who sound like a mutant country fayre band directly off the cast of the Wicker Man. There are fiddles and horns and accordions and harmonicas and reverbed classics rockabilly guitars and I even saw a reference to shrunken goats feet. No, this isn’t a traditional folk ensemble. I kind of imagine them dressed up in those worrying masks.

This is a record full of death with a big smile on its face. The Merry Wake celebrates the dead, ‘we’d rather sport with the gleeful deceased’, The End of Breeding has ‘doleful knells’, the Death Moth makes an appearance in The Year of the Burning, in Fusion of Horizons we ‘dance in the courtyard of the dead’ and in Give the Green Blessing we learn that ‘its no fun to learn in low bed of death’. Good point, well made Alasdair. The low bed of death has never been a good learning environment.

Having said that quite confidently don’t imagine this is a depressing record. Far from it. Alasdair’s guitar work is really bright at times and although there are some odd themes there are some really rousing jigs, multi tracked buoyant singalongs, New Orleans Marches. There’s everything here.

Talking of themes here there is all kinds of oddness going on in Robert’s writing. He has the gift of words and is plainly extraordinarily well read. He has the knack of writing lyrics you would swear are hundreds of years old. You’d swear that he had spent months hanging around Cecil Sharp House and found the oldest and dustiest catalogue of Scottish traditional tunes. Such is his intertwining use of old traditional tunes and jigs, airs and marches on the end of his songs you easily get confused and think the whole thing is traditional. He constantly uses old time references such as words like Linden, wren shilling and other odder words I’ve honestly never heard of and mixes it with Scottish theme, Gaelic and Latin language and Roman imagery. He is a very clever lyricist.

The Merry Wake is about celebrating the life of the dead and not mourning your loss. The song accuses a well respected trade of being the very definition of drunkards ‘drinking like masons, mixing the gunpowder up with the wine’. Its a great starter track following his usual flow of verse chorus, verse chorus and then a big old change as he cranks up his guitar playing

The Year of the Burning is a rousing song of the Highland Clearances with its Gaelic references ‘Here’s to you Ghillie Ruadh…..Come and march at the head of the clan’

Fusion of Horizons is an altogether more sinister sounding song and the Wheels of the World (the Human Conundrum) is another one of those Robert’s songs that changes tack at the end and has a fantastic bit of multitrack singing at the end with seemingly everyone in the band singing ‘these are the wheels of the world…for two thousand years they’ve been spreading destruction all over this land’ at different times in an ending similar to the Incredible String Bands’ A Very Cellular Song. It’s a proper old singalong that I have embarrassed myself in traffic with.

Along comes another corker in Song Composed in December that seems to opposed war against art and ends with the strangest of Welsh raps….yes Welsh rap.

Brother Seed rather disturbingly talks of Caledonian incest and Gave the Green Blessing talks of unhappy marriages (that’s what happens with Caledonian incest, I guess). These leads on the Scandal and Trace which is the oddest of the lot having its roots in New Orleans march and basing the tune on Red River Valley (yippee yay). There are horns and ‘Nashville’ guitar and another one of those rousing singalongs at the end ‘because all days will end in Joy, they’ll never end in evil’ giving the impression of a great big hoedown in the highlands.

The record ends with The Laverock in the Blackthorn. A love song to Scotland with a gorgeous fiddle air seeing us out

As I always say, this record is well worth the price of admission. One solitary pound at the local library clearout for me although I would happily pay full price such is the quality and strangeness of it. I have just realised I have now done three defiantly Scottish records. It is definitely time to change tack otherwise you will start believing that I have never ventured South.


Scandal and Trace

What kind of twisted mind…..







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