Release Date: Feb 24, 2017
Record label: Drag City
Debuted last year with a small UK tour, Pangs is an equally small detour for Scottish balladeer Roberts. Based this time on a Glaswegian trio of percussionist Alex Neilson (Trembling Bells, Death Shanties) and bassist Stevie Jones (ex-Arab Strap, Sound Of Yell), Roberts' erudite yet heartfelt strand of trad Scottish folk remains. From his early days in Appendix Out to his solo Drag City output, Roberts has been ploughing an authentic furrow for over 15 years and, while no luddite, you'd understand if Pangs was not the time for any mid-life musical crisis.
O ne never knows what's going to arrive from the prolific Scots singer; bleak antique balladry, self-penned songs, austere acoustics or, as here, a full band that combines cello, fiddle and flute with bass, drums and flashes of electric guitar. Roberts's elaborate writing style - winding melodies, dense imagery, internal rhymes - means it's folk that rocks rather than "folk rock", though the group storm through The Angry Laughing God and The Downward Road (the latter complete with "canine yelp"). For contrast come observational pieces like Scarce of Fishing and the reflective Vespers Chime, delivered in Roberts's sharp brogue.
Edging fringeward from the acoustic minimalism of his excellent 2015 self-titled LP, Scottish folk auteur Alasdair Roberts and his nimble rhythm section meander through ten new explorations of the fresh and the ancient. Recorded in a converted mill in Northern Ireland by Julie McLarnon, Pangs is quintessential Roberts, melding centuries-old Anglo musicality with his distinctive quasi-mystical sensibilities that consistently distance him so far from the mainstream as to remain timeless. Nine albums into his career, he's pulled off the tough trick of staying anomalous while adhering to what is basically his take on traditional folk music of the British Isles.
Alasdair Roberts' songs have a tendency to nestle themselves into your brain and take up residence there, but unlike other less endearing and perhaps more irksome ear worms, Roberts' work is steeped in originality and brilliant arrangement. The Glaswegian icon consistently blends the time-honoured British Isles folk tradition with a contemporary twist to form an inventive style that has led to great (albeit somewhat cultish) success for the veteran songwriter. Working with storied Chicago record label Drag City since 1997 and often associated with label mates and nu-folk/freak-folk artists like Bonnie 'Prince' Billy and Bill Callahan, Roberts is viewed as a more traditional folk songwriter in his home country of Scotland -- in the same vein as Martin Carthy or Dick Gaughan.
One of the consistently problematic issues with regards to "folk" music in the 21st century is not one of authenticity or truth (although there are plenty of problems with that) but one of history - of how music taps into history to help us look at the way we live now. How the past conceptualises the present. The thing is, history these days is half dredged-up nostalgia, a yearning for an ideal past that not only doesn't now exist, but which also never existed in the first place, while at the same time wilfully ignoring much of what is happening right now in the world around us.