It is a sad fact that the term ‘folk’ has been bastardised. Much of the music that suffers under the lazy description of ‘new-folk’ (I refuse to acknowledge the term ‘nu’), is without doubt actually very good indeed. In fact, it is down to the very uniqueness of the likes of Bat For Lashes, Joanna Newsom, James Yorkston and Adem that this confounded term has been invented. Alasdair Roberts, however, is one of the few artists who are really folk, even as it might have sounded in the ’50s when folk was at the heart of British towns across the nation.
The Amber Gatherers is 11 mystical songs that might have existed for centuries, were it not for the fact Roberts wrote them in the last couple of years. These are nostalgic, beautiful and mournful ballads, telling tales of Kings, angry seas, braying asses, and death.
Because death looms large in most things Roberts does. However, on this evidence, he has perked up a lot since his previous album, No Earthly Man – a collection of traditional songs about death and murder. At times, songs on the new record are so opposed to this, that they sound like drinking songs – I Had A Kiss Of The King’s Hand and the uplifting and magnificent Firewater might in another age have been riotously shouted by sailors in pubs on the Orkney Islands.
Then there are the love songs. River Rhine is a majestic song about a German fancy. This track, in what is a massive compliment to Roberts, draws comparisons with perhaps the most perfect folk love-song ever written, the traditional Northumberland ballad The Water of Tyne. I’m sure this sad song, from the early 1800s, was in Alasdair’s head when he wrote River Rhine. Two dreamy, tender melodies about romance and rivers, separated by over a century.
Elsewhere, Where Twines The Path evokes Fairport Convention‘s Meet On The Ledge with its lyrics of weariness yet contentment at the lot of a rambling rambling-man. Very old-school folk indeed.
One of the most satisfying elements of the album is Roberts’ thick Scottish accent, which washes over and adds to the mystery and bleakness in his songs. And appropriate to his involvement with Ballads of the Book (a collaborative project last year between Scottish writers and musicians), the natural imagery and undercurrent of something slightly unpleasant make The Amber Gatherers an example of Iain Banks’ impact upon the creative life of his homeland.
Musically, as ever, Roberts is immaculate. He even includes the guitar tunings to each song in the sleeve (more artists should do this). A student, a poet and one who really is keeping the traditional folk flag flying, the universal approval Roberts receives is entirely deserved.