Playing all instruments except bass (Phil Dearing) and with Kris Drever on guitar for one track, Malcolm MacWatt’s Settler continues his melding of Scottish and Appalachian influences, inviting a clutch of celebrity voices to share the journey. First up is Jaimee Harris on the bluesy shuffle of ‘Avalanche And Landslide’ which, featuring the standard line-up of banjo, mandolin, fiddle and resonator guitar, adopts the united we stand, divided we fall ethos in talking about the collective power of a movement on a song addressing the impact of corporate greed on agriculture and industry.
Adding bodhran to the mix, the scratchy mandolin rhythmic chug ‘Letter From San Francisco’ is one of his narrative numbers told in a missive home to his mother from a young man who set out to make his fortune and escape hard times at home but whose path led no further than the saloons and the opium dens and “The card games and girls became my whole world/And I got me a load of new friends…/I spent much more than I made/My friends left along with my money/And the money left a long time ago”
Following the same instrumentation, ‘Ghosts Of Caledonia’ speaks of the weight of Scotland’s past on its present, “In towns and flags and places whose namesakes you share/Embedded into legend and written into song”, not always coated in glory |(“those whom I won’ʼt speak their names/I hope they feel the weight of all those souls they kept in chains/They built their little empires on the broken backs of slaves/Will those they owned forgive their sorry souls on judgement day”) but, for those that are “Donʼ’t settle for eternity behind those pearly gates/It looks like we might really need your help again today”.
Laura Cantrell adds her vocals to the Appalachian folksy traditional ‘The Curse Of Molly McPhee’, another story-song that tells of a woman being cursed as a witch because she has the temerity to turn down the men who lust after her “they could not understand/Why a woman would want to live without the guidance of a man”), while she argues “if Iʼ’m the devil’s daughter as this holy preacher claims/Then why does he come around begging for me to lift my skirts for him”. Being from a patriarchal world, she inevitably ends upon the hanging tree.
Immigration is at the heart of ‘My Bonny Boys Have Gone’, a banjo sparse duet lament with Gretchen Peters on backing vocals and a solo last verse sung in the voice of a recently widowed Scottish mother who’s watched her children “scattered to the wind like thistle seeds”.
A familiar tale of clandestine and thwarted lovers, Eliza Carthy joins forces for the blues inflected, mandolin strummed ‘The Miller’s Daughter,’ she married off to a rich old man and the pair meeting secretly in the mill where the sound of her dad grinding the corn masks the sounds of their own grinding, until they’re discovered, he’s sent packing and she bears a son. Unusually, for such tales it actually has a hopeful resolution with him vowing to return when the husband’s dead and reclaim her.
Poaching is another folk staple, MacWatt making his contribution to the pot with the simply strummed folk blues ‘Trespass’, the narrator setting out to seek game on what was once common land, now fenced in by the powerful who have turned feudal law to their own ends, the lyrics ending with an image of the decline of the high street trades as “now supermarket forces rule/Shrink wrapped and sanitised but the car parkʼs always full”.
The appropriately Orkney-born Drever makes his appearance on guitar and vocals on a true story, ‘John Rae’s Welcome Home’ a celebration of the Orkney surgeon who signed on as a doctor for the Hudson Bay company in Canada when winter prevented his return, his name still revered among the first nations but little known back home despite finding “the final answer to the Northwest Passage question” only to have his work and discoveries cast aside in favour of glorifying the ill-fated Franklin expedition.
‘Banjo Lullaby’ is alight hearted blues about a drunken father who insists on playing his children to sleep with his banjo “and we all knew that we were due. A night of living hell…and all our dreams were nightmares and despair”. Banjo players take note, it’s a joke.
The final track is the wistful, fiddle-coloured ‘North Atlantic Summer’, drawing the geological weather connections and between Scotland and the Appalachian Trail, as previously explored on his Skail EP, vividly conjuring up the power of nature as he sings “A violent sea is clawing at the earth with angry hands/And a cruel arctic wind is whipping up a sandstorm/That blasts across the beach in a cloud of silica and salt/And Iʼm standing on a rocky shore my arms stretched out like wings/Sea spray burns my eyes and flying sand nips at my skin/Iʼm powerless against this force canʼt even stand upright”. But also the calm that follows when the wind drops “and the sky will go from black to blue/And a golden light shines on the mountain peaks” before the thunderclouds roll in again.
It ends in novel fashion with MacWatt narrating the background to each of the song against noodling acoustic guitar or fiddle, much as he might introduce them in his live show. A sensitive, insightful and empathetic album, you should really let Settler colonise your collection.
Artist’s website: www.malcolmmacwatt.com
‘Avalanche And Landslide’ – official video: