Alasdair Roberts Spoils

[Drag City; 2009]

Styles: British folk, New Weird America
Others: Fairport Convention, The Incredible String Band, Will Oldham

The problem with most contemporary folk artists performing in the British Isles tradition is that they often sound a little too, well, traditional, in the most literal sense of the word. If you’re someone who prefers your folk steeped in the no-frills approach of Appalachian roots or the canyon-crawling evocations of the West Coast, the whimsical imagery of this breed from the motherland can make you feel like dancing around a maypole at a renaissance fair — an uncomfortable and sometimes embarrassing sensation if jousting and chowing on legs of mutton are not among your favorite activities. Patriotic leanings aside, it’s refreshing to hear someone like Alasdair Roberts — who, on Spoils, his fifth solo offering — continues to deliver tokens of reverence for his Scottish predecessors while managing to reinterpret the genre into an accessible record that's sure to please even the most fervent American folk enthusiasts.

The story goes that the omnipresent Will Oldham discovered Glasgow-based Roberts in the mid 90s, when the latter handed Oldham a demo of his then-band Appendix Out at a show. Oldham and Roberts soon became labelmates on Drag City, which issued three albums by Appendix Out (of which Roberts was the sole constant member) before eventually releasing music under his own name in 2001, starting with his debut, Crooks of My Arm. A year later, the two collaborated with Jason Molina to release a lone EP entitled Amalgamated Sons of Rest, and in the seven years since, he has presented the world with four additional albums, vacillating between original compositions and recitations of long-established ballads and shanties.

This time around, Roberts chose to pen his own words and music for Spoils, and the result is his finest album to date. It starts the journey with a seven-minute story song, “The Flyting of Grief and Joy (Eternal Return),” which describes the pilgrimage of the two personified emotions with “a ragged band of Crusaders” in tow, losing one to the Devil at the end of each verse. In “You Muses Assist,” the brogue-tongued singer engages us in a rousing work song where, in Roberts’ strange pasture, it is “sterile rams and simulacra” to which we are tending. “So Bored Was I (Dark Triad)” has Roberts encountering three incarnations of himself — infancy, young adulthood, and old age — one of which sees him masturbating in a beer vat: "Then coming from an old mash tun/ I heard the sound of a young man cum/ I paused awhile and gazed inside/ The cum was mine, the man was I." “Unyoked Oxen Turn” unravels a yarn about a cripple running around in search of his legs, only to be moralized by a mystical savant that he should be looking for his knees instead. (Here’s hoping that’s meant to be open to interpretation.)

Musically, Roberts employs the most traditional of instruments, including the harpsichord, harmonium, glockenspiel, hurdy-gurdy, dulcimer, and the primeval psaltery, but the way in which he orchestrates them is what gives Spoils both its sense of currency and its understated psychedelic edge. They are truly the bells and whistles of the album. About halfway through each song, these instruments kick in, and the effect is positively invigorating, particularly on “Unyoked Oxen Turn,” whose last two minutes sound like they could have been lifted from an unreleased track on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.

While Spoils is immediately pleasant upon first listen, it does require a few spins to grasp Roberts' lyrics. This is partially due to the way his gentle Scottish dialect curls around the words, which are riddled with obscure historical references. Do Candida Casa or Mammon sound familiar? When you get past the encyclopedic nature of the words, however, you will be in on Roberts’ unique brand of humor. For example, in last track — “Under No Enchantment (But my Own),” a lovely song about being dumped — Roberts says to the listener in an aside: “All this with one look/ And man, was I spooked!/ And woman, was I spooked!”

It could be said that Roberts is the Donovan to Oldham’s Dylan, in more ways than just their respective home countries. Both possess the austerity of performance that is essential to the folk aesthetic. But where Oldham’s lyrics are stripped to their barest linguistic bones, Roberts embraces the entire magniloquent scope of the English language, making it impossible to separate his music from his roots. Not only, then, is Spoils a splendid introduction to Alasdair Roberts’ repertoire, it is also a fine way to get your feet wet in the British Folk kingdom.

1. The Flyting Of Grief And Joy (Eternal Return)
2. You Muses Assist
3. So Bored Was I (Dark Triad)
4. Unyoked Oxen Turn
5. The Book Of Doves
6. Ned Ludd’s Rant (For A World Rebarbarised)
7. Hazel Forks
8. Under No Enchantment (But My Own)

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