Alasdair Robert’s high-spirited new album, Pangs, is in stores today – and in commemoration with this forthcoming moment of uplift, we share with one and all the newly-minted video for the title track.
Throughout Pangs, Alasdair’s leads a band on electric guitar, offering an evocation of the 60s and 70s folk-rockers of the British Isles – the electric warriors of Fairport Convention, the Battleﬁeld Band, Planxty, Richard Thompson and so many others. Of course, these sounds travel through the music of Alasdair Roberts, which is set very firmly in the world of today. And even a dark lament can lift the heart – the point in fact is ‘Pangs’ itself, a skipping ode considering the phenomenon of “sympathetic birth” – where the pain of the expecting mother is shared by another. We take this to be Alasdair’s observation of the Brexit/Trump echo, a collapse that has been heard across nations.
It makes sense then that the ‘Pangs’ video finds Alasdair hitching a ride through hostile counties, standing on the rock of Hadrian’s Walk (the ancient Roman wall built in the north of England to mark the boundary of their empire) and returning, prodigal-son style to a remote castle where children play and a preacher leads his flock. There’s magic involved, via a selenite Crystal Wand, and an evocation of end times. A stark but compelling vision that reminds us to consider others as we do ourselves. With a guitar solo too!
Alasdair’s UK and Ireland tour (with Alex Neilson and Stevie Jones) is under way check if they’re coming to your neck of the woods!
If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the Alasdair Roberts – Pangs link to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.
Although this is her third album, until now my only aural encounter with the Sussex-based folkie was her collaboration with James Yorkston, playing fiddle on a very brief a capella ‘My Doffing Mistress’ on the 2012 Daily Worker benefit album We’re All In It Together. However, my extended introduction fortuitously coincides with a new stage in her career. Working with such luminaries as Yorkston, Alasdair Roberts and, from Trembling Bells, Mike Hastings and Alex Neilson, the latter of whom has likened her voice to a cross between Lal Waterson and Nico, the album marks the first time she’s recorded her own rather than traditional material. Indeed, not only did she write it, she arranged and produced it too.
There is one traditional number here, a spare, plucked fiddle version of ‘Come Write Me Down’, taken from the Copper family songbook and from whence comes the album’s title. However, if you weren’t already aware, there’s several tracks that (were it not for some of the lyrics) you could be persuaded had been knocking round the folk archives for a century or so, particularly the fiddle-led relationships-themed ‘And Everything’, that almost imperceptibly gathers pace as it proceeds and the band join in, and the a capella ‘The Hired Hand’ (where she harmonises with herself under the name Dusty Springsteen).
Raised on the North Sea coast of Lincolnshire (which explains the accent), she’s perhaps inevitably drawn to songs of ships and the sea. Bearing a lilting melody reminiscent of Dylan’s ‘To Ramona’, featuring sax and melodeon, ‘This Ship Is On A List’ wittily uses a disintegrating ship as a metaphor for a collapsing relationship, launching into a full on trad-sounding shanty mid-way (though perhaps the line “Now the focsle is fucked”, isn’t perhaps one Fisherman’s Friends might include). Featuring Hastings on Jews harp, ‘Salt’, one of the albums many standout numbers, addresses the dangerous allure of fishing fleets, delivering a chorus of “In like a lion out like a lamb. Set sail a boy, came home a man” that fires up thoughts of classic Richard and Linda Thompson.
Again Jews harp and featuring Dan Quinn on melodeon, the same is true of ‘Toast (The Ballad Of Michael ‘Mini’ Cooper)’, a luminous fiddle waltzing number that tells the story of the titular 1970s child arsonist, a bright but troubled young 10-year-old from Co. Durham who set fire to his parents house, allegedly knowing his abusive father was asleep upstairs. The subject of two BBC documentaries, in 1974 (directed by Franc Roddam) and a decade later, after spending most of those years in psychiatric care at a series of high security special schools, he was sentenced to life in 1990 after setting fire to a bottling plant, Osborne cuts to the heart of his morally ambiguous story (the full details of which, including Cooper’s shattered dreams of a film and being a playwright, make powerful reading), seeing him as a victim as she sings “when you’re silenced with violence and you’re given no chance and no choice. And when you’re brilliant and bored and you’re beaten, fire is your vengeance and voice.” If this isn’t among next year’s Radio 2 Folk Awards Song of the Year nominees, then there’s no justice.
The album comes to a close with the traditional lyric styled ‘Undone’ (“Cut off my long yellow hair, dress in mans’ array, make myself unbeautiful, no more will I stay”), set to a backing of fiddle drone and Neilson’s unconventional percussion and drums with Osborne humming the playout coda, and, finally, ‘All One’, featuring just her and Hastings’ plangent acoustic guitar, which, her delivery of the ‘One small space and a letter between all one and alone’ refrain, putting me in mind of Sandy Denny.
However, perhaps because of the time of year and the fact that the cascading tubular bells recall Jethro Tull’s festive ‘Ring Out, Solstice Bells’, I have to say that my personal favourite is the album opener, ‘I Don’t Like Sundays’, a song that sets the theme of survivors and survival with the protagonist encouraging a friend to fight against their depression ( “I saw the cloud come like a shroud, stealing all your joy”) and reminding that “Sometimes all you can do is put one foot before the other and heed the conversation tween the future and the past.”
The album cover is a 1960’s picture of Osborne’s grandmother, Katharine Compton, in a Sidmouth Festival drinking competition. Having given The Watersons and Peter Bellamy their first club gigs, Compton is something of a legend in folk circles; with this album her granddaughter should become one too.
Galley Beggar were about to premiere some of their new album, Silence & Tears, in front of a live audience and they were … not nervous but a little apprehensive about the reception the new material would receive. Of course, they had no need to worry.
They began with a couple of old favourites: ‘The Outlandish Knight’ and ‘Willow Tree’ before the most typical of the new material, ‘Geordie’ with a stunning solo from David Ellis. ‘Empty Sky’ followed ‘Adam And Eve’ then came ‘Pay My Body Home’, the song from the album that is destined for live greatness and which allowed David into guitar heaven. They closed with ‘Jack O’Rion’, a big ballad compressed into a few minutes’ story-telling – the perfect ending to the set.
Sadly, Celine Marshall was unavailable but her dep, Emma Scarr, did a solid job although possibly without the freedom of expression that Celine might have had. It was still a fine set and one that would have appealed equally to the dedicated fans as well as the merely curious.
Trembling Bells also have a new album, The Sovereign Self, and a new guitarist, Alasdair C Mitchell, but it is still Mike Hastings, a giant of a man who produces a big sound from his Burns guitar who dominates the stage almost as much as Lavinia Blackwall. Actually, Mitchell is more than just a guitarist, sometimes taking over from Lavinia on keyboards and adding another voice.
They started with three songs without a word of introduction, just great waves of sound washing over us and their albums are a bit like that; you have to attune your head to them. The guy behind me remarked that it was like San Francisco in 1968. I’ll take his word for it because I know I wasn’t there but I think I know what he means. I suspect that it’s more the way we remember the sixties to have been than the way they really were.
‘O, Where Is Saint George’, which begins with a fragment of the Padstow May Day song, is perhaps typical of Alex Neilson’s unique imagination moving from a traditional lyric to what sounds like stream of consciousness or cut-up – “Lou Read and Lauren Bacall defeated Asterix the Gaul” and I admit that I looked that up afterwards. ‘Bells Of Burford’ feels like a traditional song written by Dennis Wheatley while melodically echoing ‘The Lyke Wake Dirge’ and was one of the highlights of the set.
There were more moments of weirdness with Alex’s solo turns at the microphone. One might have been called ‘My Girlfriend’s Got No Navel’ but I’m not sure I got that right. When they announced their final number it seemed like an awfully short set but they came back to finish with a spiky version of ‘The Auld Triangle’. Everyone went home very happy and a good many albums were bought – even by me.
If you would like to order a copy of the albums (in CD or Vinyl), download them or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the banner links below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website.