What News“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!

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website:

‘The Fair Flower Of Northumberland’ – an old recording with Will Oldham but all I could find:

Alasdair Roberts announces a new collaboration for a new album

Alasdair Roberts Trio
Photograph by Eva Gnatiuk

For his twelfth solo album, What News, and his fourth album focused exclusively on the performance of traditional songs, Alasdair Roberts has chosen a typically unusual and eclectic pair of collaborators: Amble Skuse and David McGuinness.

On past albums No Earthly Man and Too Long In This Condition, Alasdair relied on his deep connection with the material to anchor exploratory arrangements that would locate the hundreds-years-old songs in a contemporary milieu. For his first project in this vein since 2010, Alasdair had a desire to sing and not so much to play, so he asked early music scholar and Concerto Caledonia director David McGuinness (a previous collaborator) to play keyboard accompaniment. He started with the choosing of appropriate instruments: a 1844 grand pianoforte and a “Mozart-style” fortepiano of relatively recent vintage – the types of instrument they call in Holland “brown pianos” (as opposed to the “black” sound of the modern Steinway). To these, David added his own circa-1920 Dulcitone, a Glaswegian keyboard that plays tuning forks instead of strings.

While developing the arrangements, David hit upon an idea for an additional collaborator: sonologist Amble Skuse, whose work involves interactive, electronic performance treatments. This provided a third plane for the project, and thus triangulated, they were able to crystallize an approach involving a very open soundstage: David’s keyboard, Alasdair’s vocals and Amble’s structural soundscaping.  This makes for beautiful and driven music that has no analogue in Alasdair’s catalogue – for while he has consistently pursued the dynamic fusion of songs from hundreds of years ago in a modern and progressive context, he has never worked with a keyboard as the central instrument.

What News stands artifacts of history in the unclear light of our modern day for us to compare and contrast. As always, it is shocking and delightful musical entertainment.

Artist’s website: