One of the reservations I have about ‘folk’ music, whether it’s retro or retrofitted, is that much of it lacks spontaneity. That might seem ironic, given the genre’s earthy connotations, but it isn’t so surprising really, when so much of its stock is invested in repertoire, tunes and lyrics of meticulously researched and annotated provenance. Of course that doesn’t tell the whole story: there are still seams of innovation to be mined, and the core trio featured on Pangs, Alasdair Roberts’ latest album, brings together three of the music’s most artful prospectors.
Drummer/percussionist Alex Neilson is fully at home playing free and improvised music, and carries the disjointed legacy of Fairport Convention and the 60’s UK folk ‘revival’ forward with his own group Trembling Bells. He also collaborates tirelessly, notably with Richard Youngs, Jandek, and Will Oldham, all operating more or less beyond category.
Multi-instrumentalist Stevie Jones hails from the same Glasgow ‘scene’ as Neilson, and is another inveterate collaborator, drawing the changeable personnel of his own Sound of Yell from that city’s pool of alternative musicians.
Variable configurations of Sound of Yell opened for the Alasdair Roberts’ Trio on the Pangs promo tour, with Jones fronting Sound of Yell singing and playing acoustic guitar before switching to bass to play in the trio. Roberts, in exchange, played hurdy-gurdy with Sound of Yell.
The hurdy-gurdy is one instrument that makes no appearance on Pangs, but Roberts plays a range of guitars, both acoustic and electric, as well as synth and metallophone; Jones plays both upright and electric basses and various keyboards; and Tom Crossley, Rafe Fitzpatrick and Jessica Kerr add the textures of flute, fiddle and strings.
Of course, Roberts is by no means unique in crafting arrangements that give songs a contemporary cast. Like any another singer/songwriter, it’s more his ear for a melody and the ability to turn a lyric to fit it that’s the measure of his merit. On that count he’s a rare bird indeed.
Robert’s lyrics⏤delivered in strikingly personal idiolect, with idiosyncratic turns of phrase that are superficially reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s⏤blend the often uncanny tropes of handed-down folksong with a very personalised mythos or worldview, in which Roberts observes ‘folk’ concerns through the lenses of psychology and psychoanalysis as much as gnosis and mythology.
That’s most obvious, perhaps, on albums like Spoils (2009) and A Wonder Working Stone (2015), which Roberts alternates with collections of traditional material (cf. 2010’s Too Long in This Condition). Pangs belongs among the former, but, as with 2015’s solo Alasdair Roberts, there’s a more intimate caste to new songs such as “No Dawn Song” and “Wormwood and Gall”, and themes of ageing and mortality outweigh those that ruminate on the uncanny or esoteric.
The album’s lead and title cut is a song of famine and fealty, and “something to do with the concept of couvade“, say Roberts’ notes, his lyrics set to a light rock accompaniment that clearly harks back to the era of the Fairports and successors such as Battlefield Band.
“The Downward Road” is also close to ‘traditional’ folk-rock in form, with meaty bass, vocal yelps and electric guitar filigree, but the fiddle lines entwine with unexpected synth flourishes. I’ve seen the shanty-esque “The Angry Laughing God” described as a “merry romp”, and that fits well enough, if oddly for a lyric informed by both “the notion of Malthusianism” and “The angry laughing god who made / Our limbs a loan to be repaid one day.”
There’s plenty of variety here, and Roberts is at his best on the ballads, notably the heartfelt, familial “Wormwood and Gall”, and self-descriptive “Scarce of Fishing”, the melody of which comes from an Irish traditional.
The album was recorded in Ireland, at Ulster’s Analogue Catalogue. Its production is clean and lively, not over-fussy. Every guitar tuning is annotated, but Roberts’ vocals are pitch-slippery, and that, along with the players’ fluency and economy of touch, gives the whole a stamp of intimacy and authenticity.
“Song of the Marvels” caps the album off as a condensed epic of sorts, a question-and-answer number with no straight answers, emphasising that the profound, in Robert’s songs, is always bound tight to the personal, insinuated into the wider culture via the Trojan horse of uplifting and invigorating songs such as these.
Alasdair Roberts – vocals, acoustic guitar, Nashville guitar, electric guitar, metallophone, synthesizer; Stevie Jones – double bass, electric bass, piano, harmonium, organ, backing vocals; Alex Neilson – drums, percussion, backing vocals; Tom Crossley – flute; Rafe Fitzpatrick – fiddle; Jessica Kerr – cello.
Buy Pangs direct from Drag City.