I’m not a churchgoing man. Not to say I don’t very occasionally go; to keep the peace with the wife, yes, but also to partake of the fellowship in those rare moments when spiritual fellowship seems like a good idea to me. It was on one such occasion recently that the church choir and orchestra, such as it was, made a distinct impression. The roiling, echoing wave washing over the congregation from one of the chapel’s corners was weirdly ghost-like. An acoustic guitar, a tambourine (and bodhran maybe?), a violin, the church organ. There was some drifting off-key as they went through a selection of modern and traditional Christmas tunes. These were not masters at work — but there was a percussive backbone and a feeling of possession over the music that was touching, spirited, and ultimately impressive. It took an old rite, the Christmas service, and made it at once accessible, even primitively groovy, and yet kept a grounding in tradition. Continuity and rebirth.
In listening to Alasdair Roberts’ new album, A Wonder Working Stone, I was reminded of this rare church moment, particularly on the tune “Fusion of Horizons,” penned by Roberts, like all the songs on the album, yet redolent of the hymnal. Roberts, a Scot who sings in full accent, works a narrow channel of contemporary music. With an eye to traditional Celtic and British folksong, which he masterfully reimagines across several of his records (witness “The Daemon Lover” from 2010’s Too Long In This Condition: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y2soWDfwxNE), he fashions here lyrics and tunes that sound as if they have sprung full-grown from the head of the 18th and 19th centuries. In “Fusion of Horizons,” a reflection on the nature of love, Roberts sings:
Love is a trellis of early roses
A shady arbor the soul encloses
Never jealously imposes
Fellowship on one who’d be alone
It’s a holy wand of gnosis
It’s a wonder working stone
While Roberts has few peers his own age, he’s working in a tradition that began a half century ago. The British and Celtic folk revival spawned composers who, like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Hedy West, and Bob Dylan in America, both interpreted folk songs and used folk templates to create songs reflecting their own time and thoughts. Bert Jansch, Martin Carthy, Archie Fisher, Bob Pegg, the Watersons, Andy Irvine, Barry Dransfield, and Richard Thompson developed unique approaches to re-thinking traditional music, embellishing existing tunes and lyrics, as well as writing new narratives within the “folk” idiom. Instrumentation, time shifts, and electricity were used elastically, and often to great and powerful effect, shrugging off the often-heavy yoke of tradition that spawned such legends as Pete Seeger’s pulling the plug on Dylan’s electric set at Newport (for there are few scenes more radically protective than the oldtime/traditional folk scene). Roberts has absorbed this and his records reflect a strong recognition of those who came before, whether we’re talking 30 or 130 years. He is a curator, in spirit and in fact. In 2011, he put together a compilation of Scottish field recordings made by the venerable American collector of song, Alan Lomax. He has worked with luminaries of the British folk revival and participated in a posthumous tribute to one of the great singers and writers to emerge from that period, Lal Waterson. But while he is something of a documentarian and has a pedagogic streak, his music is a mix of wildness and restraint, electric and acoustic and brassy, a complex take on difficult times. Folk-influenced contemporaries he’s often associated with, like James Yorkston and Will Oldham, paint warm canvases that lull and think and often swing, and are perhaps more indebted to indie rock, Nick Drake, and Belle and Sebastian than to the darker musings and ancient settings of Richard Thompson that more closely characterize the territory Roberts travels. It is RT that Roberts might be most successfully compared to, because of his approach to song, his technical skill, and his ability to entertain rather than bat over the head with his scholar’s knowledge. And, like Thompson’s, Roberts’ writing is decorated by mortality.
Death is alive, in The Wonder Working Stone, as it is in much of Roberts’ music, bloodied and a shame and inevitable, and not without its share of humor. In the grand tradition of the darker streams of folk music, whether murder ballad or lament, his wizened voice possessing the sly vulnerability that colored Vic Chesnutt’s work, Roberts sings away the fear the way most reasonable souls, if unwittingly, do. “The Merry Wake” begins this double album just so, and is a good example of his approach:
In hour of mayhem, in time of misgiving
Some turn to pastor, some turn to priest
Some would consort with the miserable living
But we’d rather sport with the gleeful deceased
Explaining each song in a note following his lyrics — for full effect I suggest pony-ing up for the LP, but the CD version should have these as well — Roberts resurrects a practice common to the folk revival, providing a thumbnail of his sources and inspirations. These are mostly Scottish and Norse in origin, and Roberts masterfully uses religious, class, and national conflict from centuries past to create a mirror many of us might relate to. In “Song Composed in December,” against a backdrop including a horn section (evoking Martin Carthy’s and John Kirkpatrick’s Brass Monkey project), he sings:
Woe to those who celebrate the taking up of violence
And woe to those who perpetrate delusions of their sirelands
Who’d fight for no reason with sword or with firebrand
Be they reiver in the border or raider in the highland
And joy to those who’d use their songs
as clues to find their clans
But woe to those who’d use them
to enslave their fellow man
His note on the song:
The title of this song is a nod to Robert Burns’ ‘Song Composed in August’, memorably recorded by Dick Gaughan on his 1981 Topic Records album Handful of Earth, under the title ‘Now Westin Winds’. The melody, like the sentiment, is international — the verse tune is extrapolated from that of the Irish song ‘The Bogs of Shanaheever’ as sung by the late Joe Heaney (1919-1984); the first instrumental break is the English Morris tune ‘Traveller’s Joy’ which was taught to me by the then Exeter-based fiddler and singer Jackie Oates; the second instrumental break is the Scottish tune ‘The Bluebell Polka’ which was made famous by the late accordinist and cellidh band leader Jimmy Shand (1908-2000). Rafe Fitzpatrick wrote the Welsh rap.
You get the idea. Alasdair Roberts is folk polymath.
Musically, the center of the album is Brother Seed, which Roberts describes as “the most recent addition to the canon of Scottish folk songs concerning the incest taboo.” Anyone familiar with British and Celtic folk songs knows this is not unusual territory; between foxes running off with maidens, lairds skewering their wives’ teenage lovers, women disguising themselves as men to to go sea or seek revenge at court, and fiddle-playing fathers hanging their rapist sons, the field is rich with humanity’s darker impulses. Roberts has been performing Brother Seed for a while, and when I first saw this video I searched for the song until I realized he hadn’t released it yet:
Divided into two sections, Roberts begins the song as Martin Carthy or Bert Jansch might, as a quickly fingerpicked, droning 9/8 (I think — I’m open to suggestion) fiddle tune with an unexpected melodic twist, a vocal bend between following the first refrain — “The greenwood waxes early” — that is matched on guitar by taking two half-steps up from the IV, achieving a tension that resolves in the second refrain — “Where the deer go running yearly.” The whole picture is of a dark future, foretold by the girl’s mother, and in the second half of the song, where there is a down-tempo shift and the appearance of a dour and further darkening keyboard, “Brother Seed” turns fully to lament. While the song is challenging thematically, it engages the listener in an ancient drama, the establishment of humanity’s rules and who is meant to suffer when those rules are broken. This is the continuing appeal of “traditional” folk music, whether the text is old or, in Roberts’ case, newly wrought.
While there is no question that The Wonder Working Stone has a traditional feel, folk’s simplicity here is scored on a complex scale. The variety of the instrumentation — 13 musicians worked on this record — and the arrangements offer a richness rewarding close and casual listeners alike. Never overwhelming Roberts’ lyrics, which are epic and a joy to read (not something you can say about all songs), the cast here includes flutes, trumpets, trombones, goats feet(!), keyboards, and some very wonderful electric guitar by Ben Reynolds, whose contribution is akin to Jerry Donohue’s or Richard Thompson’s on Sandy Denny’s solo albums.
A Wonder Working Stone is the portrait of a musician at a summit of his musical and lyrical powers, working with finesse, restraint, and boldness a territory that continues to inspire interpretation.
Craig Breaden, February 3, 2013