Mention Lau to any folk fan and you will get a sharp intake of breath and mutterings about the greatest thing since sliced bread. Such is the impact that Kris Drever (guitar/vocals), Martin Green (accordion) and Aidan O’Rourke (fiddle) have made in their short existence, that expectations for their second studio album Arc Light are sky high.
Instrumental virtuosos they may be, but Drever, Green and O’Rourke are also grounded young men with an ear for the latest musical developments around the world and a cool, calm and collected way of incorporating new styles into their largely traditional fare.
The success of Lightweights & Gentlemen has not gone to the trio’s heads. Instead, they have returned to the studio and worked with producer Calum Malcolm on shaping a more rounded and cohesive collection of songs.
Predominantly instrumental like the debut, Arc Light plays around with folk tradition in a free and easy manner that never sounds forced or contrived. Opening track The Burrian may sound like an easy listening Ceilidh round, but listen closely and you will hear switches of tempo and unusual melodies that would have the average bearded folkie spluttering into his real ale.
Drever provides the first of the album’s vocal tracks on Winter Moon. A beautiful, lilting song that may even pick up some mainstream radio play, it is a testament to Drever’s songwriting skill that he manages to incorporate traditional folk tropes into the lyric without sounding corny.
Horizontigo (Horizontigo/Alright In The Heid) and Salty Boys (Operation Knoydart/Salty Boys) are two lengthy tracks that highlight the stunning virtuosity and almost telepathic musical understanding of the three players. Switching freely between traditional and experimental rhythms and tempos, this is folk music for the twenty-first century and beyond. The song titles are terrible of course, but we have come to expect that from Lau.
Drever lightens proceedings with a fine version of Les Rice’s standard Banks Of Marble (originally a hit for The Weavers in 1949), a song that derives additional resonance in the current economic climate.
Stephen’s (Stephen’s Leaving/Plot No. 12) is the album’s instrumental tour de force, with some red-hot musical interplay and an experimental approach that turns tradition firmly on its head. It makes a lot of other music sound distinctly ordinary in comparison.
The Master sounds lightweight in comparison but listen closely and you will notice how Drever’s perfectly pitched vocals flow beautifully with O’Rourke’s staccato picking. It’s an unusual approach to use a fiddle as rhythmic accompaniment but one that Lau pull off with their usual flair. O’Rourke is all over Frank And Flo’s (Frank And Flo’s/An Tobar) as well, investing the track with an urgency that just keeps building and building.
Temple Of Fiddles slows the pace down but is hypnotic in its intensity, the seven minute running time seeming almost parsimonious. It comes as something of a relief when the ‘bonus’ cover of Dear Prudence plays the album out, but even this throwaway track is invested with a musical inventiveness that The Beatles would have been proud to hear.
The cover of Arc Light features the three musicians welding in a blaze of white-hot sparks. Naff it may be (Lau’s artwork is always tongue in cheek) but as a symbol of the musical innovation within it is absolutely perfect.