“This is proper folk music”, said my wife on first hearing What News. And it is: big songs full of blood, sex, betrayal and murder. I thought I understood Alasdair Roberts’ working pattern. There would be a traditional album, then a couple of sets of his original songs – very often embodying elements of the tradition – and one or two collaborations that don’t fit either category. What News is both traditional and a collaboration! Supporting Alasdair are David McGuiness, whose piano is the record’s principal instrument, and Amble Skuse who weaves evocative soundscapes around the songs.
First up is ‘The Dun Broon Bride’, a tale of a man marrying for money rather than love, with betrayal, two murders and probably a fair amount of blood. I blame his mother. The failed marital arrangements in ‘Young Johnstone’ are more complicated but the outcome is equally bloody. There is even more blood in ‘Johnny O’ The Brine’.
The style of the album comes from Alasdair’s desire to sing more and play less. He is a terrific unaccompanied singer – the songs seeming to inhabit his whole body – but, sadly, unaccompanied traditional singing isn’t as fashionable as it used to be. What News is a perfect compromise. Alasdair is singing at his very best as he gives each song every ounce of his concentration.
‘Rosie Anderson’ gives us betrayal and sex but also supplies an insight into the mores of the time, with the side having the most witnesses (at whatever cost) winning the divorce settlement. ‘The Fair Flower Of Northumberland’ is one of my favourite songs – mostly betrayal with added forgiveness – and Alasdair sings it almost as reportage; a nod to the album’s title. ‘Clerk Colven’ is essentially a simple song: our hero is told not to do something on pain of death, he does it and dies. Here it is the album’s big production number with Skuse pulling out all the stops – the sound of water combined with eerie droning notes and she doesn’t let up with ‘Babylon’, nothing to do the Home Service song and one I hadn’t heard before – always a bonus.
There are one or two songs I’m not familiar with, or rather variants that I hadn’t heard. I particularly relish a line in ‘Long A-Growing’ in which the bride complains that her groom is only twelve while she is almost fourteen. Game Of Thrones or what?
What News is a superb album – proper folk music!
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‘The Fair Flower Of Northumberland’ – an old recording with Will Oldham but all I could find: