Mile Marbbhphaisg Air A’Ghaol is a term which may not exactly roll off the tongue but in the hands of Mairi Morrison and Alasdair Roberts, it is an enchanting re-imagining of a classic traditional Scottish number, as part of their new collaborative album Urstan.
Both Roberts and Morrison are Scottish but have strikingly different backgrounds – Roberts is a Lowlander, non-Gaelic speaker and folk singer of some renown having recently toured with the likes of James Yorkston and Adrian Crowley, while Morrison hails from Bragar, on the Isle of Lewis, almost as far west as one can go in Scotland before reaching the shores of North America. Morrison is a native Gaelic speaker and steeped in the rich Gaelic cultural traditions and memories of her homeland, an area which Roberts has increasingly maintained an interest in, a progression from his past life as a morbid protector and communicator of the bleakest murder ballads known to man.
Both artists came together at Ceol’s Craic, a Glasgow Gaelic arts centre which resulted in Urstan. The album title takes its name from the traditional celebrations surrounding the birth of a child on Lewis (and has a double-meaning as a dram of whiskey, naturally). But the album doesn’t entirely look to the past. The arrangements have been bolstered by an ensemble giving the songs an almost jazz makeover, dragging the originals out of their remote Scottish origins into the realm of world music and highly produced tricks and flourishes.
Morrison’s voice is the more natural of the two, her empathetic and carefully lilting tones illuminate the majority of songs on the album. On the other hand, Roberts is a singer firmly in the Martin Fry/Kevin Rowland category of consistently threatening to reach those heavenly notes but never quite managing to do so, instead settling for the very top of his register which imbues the likes of The Tri-Coloured House and The Whole House Is Signing with a curious sense of impending collapse. Of course, this never happens and you find yourself consistently applauding Roberts for not cracking under the vocal strain.
The most successful collaborations are exactly that – Never Wed An Old Man and Fiullaigean showcases the two voices dovetailing perfectly, and most notably on the chorus of Am Faca Sibh Lilidh Tha Mise Ri Lorg?, the most fully realised track on the album which is peppered with some genuinely lovely flute and acoustic guitar interplay amid a flurry of fiddles and busy brush drumming. However, Urstan does straddle the line between a progressive approach to traditional music and schmaltzy, sentimental interpretations – E Ho Leigein in particular passes by in a haze of Celtic mist and despite the precise arrangements, the album does occasionally suffer from an occasionally stilted sound – there is a sense that songs could do with even further experimenting with, an approach which wouldn’t smother the true nature of the originals.
Bonnie Prince Billy‘s The Letting Go ploughed a similar furrow as warbling Will duetted with Dawn McCarthy of the Faun Fables. The beauty of this particular album was in its strangeness; the delicate arrangements were oddly spectral and difficult to pin down, an approach which may have equally served Urstan. Nevertheless, Roberts and Morrison have crafted an elegant and vivid love letter to the music and culture of the Isle of Lewis, and well bring to life the storytellings and traditions of this remote outpost.