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Alasdair Roberts
No Earthly Man
Drag City

As the seasons turn over, and the years run like rabbits, the changing days find changing pop-cultural ways. And, of recent, the attention paid to the humans making any sort of folkie music has altered radically. When Alasdair Roberts cut his first solo record — a set of traditional folk songs called The Crook of My Arm — in 2001, not many noticed; the disc was lost in the shadows of the third album cut by Roberts' main band, Appendix Out, that very same year. It dared to find the lonesome Roberts singing in a thick Scots accent, and hardly gained any hipster points by openly citing the influence of folk-revival heroes like Anne Briggs, Shirley Collins, Nic Jones, Dick Gaughan, and Barry Dransfield. Roberts showed this was where his heart truly lay, though, by letting Appendix Out die a natural death thereafter (letting that combo's Tom Crossley turning back towards his International Airport outfit), and by embracing his folk-revival revival wholeheartedly. His second solo outing, 2003's Farewell Sorrow, introduced Roberts as the modern-day heir to that movement, his collection of inspired originals placing him as a unique contemporary figure, someone whose earnest evocation of acoustic-music/Anglo-Celtic traditionalism seemed most un-postmodern; he shared the same purity of spirit as those early-music enthusiasts of the 1960s. Two years later, however, the word "folk" is suddenly loaded, and is utterly fatal when preceded by the pseudo-word "nu," with anyone owning a Sufjan Stevens record, apparently, into some sort of genrefied "folk movement." It's unlikely the Banhart crowd will fall for No Earthly Man, the latest longplayer in Roberts' increasingly impressive discography. Produced/played on by willing collaborateur Will Oldham (and also featuring former Appendix Out homies Crossley and Gareth Eggie, plus indie-pop pinup Isobel Campbell), it's a sombre, sorrowful collection of traditional death hymns: poisoning ballads, infanticide ballads, fratricide ballads, shipwreck ballads. Walking at a funereal gait, the gear works to slow its folk songs to a snail's pace, the deathly-slow saunter the better with which to cultivate a ghostly atmosphere. Roberts' robust croon is matched with haunted harmonies wailed by Campbell and the Bonnie Prince; Campbell's droning cello and the nimble-fingered fiddling of John McCusker play forlorn figures whose friction-on-strings/bowed vibrato seems like so much (gentle) weeping. From a strictly traditionalist sense, the disc resembles the post-rockification of such source material; but, compared to the modern-day minstrels that pass for new-millennial folksmen, Roberts seems like he hails from an entirely different era.

by Anthony Carew

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