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Alasdair Roberts - No Earthly Man

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Artist: Alasdair Roberts

Album: No Earthly Man

Label: Drag City

Review date: Mar. 30, 2005

Hey everybody – and I do mean everybody – let’s hear it for death, survival’s troubled cousin. An equalizer beyond compare, death provides us with what I’d imagine is the closest feeling we ever get to pure objectivity. Of course, the eyewitnesses ain’t talkin’, which gives the capital “D” a mystique beyond love’s. Thus, in its dark wake, it carries the greatest storytelling tradition of them all. We might not know what’s behind door number three, but the last few minutes before it opens… those can be interesting. Especially if we didn’t plan on it, but someone else did.

Scotsman Alasdair Roberts, whom you might know from his recordings as Appendix Out, dusts off some ancient murder balladry on No Earthly Man, a meek peek into the abyss. “Lord Roland” gets things going, and this time, the girlfriend’s doing her own killing. As our protag’s indigestion slowly snuffs him, he wedges in an accusation and a plea for revenge. Like a lot of old-timey “culture” routinely taught to kids, “Lord Roland” is dark, vindictive stuff. Murder junkies might see it atop the track list and prepare themselves for Nick Cave-style theatrics. Those aren’t forthcoming. Roberts’ music sports no professional shellac, but it doesn’t burn or writhe, either. It’s profoundly unpretentious. He plays the songs entirely straight, never boosting his heavily accented voice above a matter-of-fact murmur. Only a disturbing, omnipresent hum in the backdrop indicates anything barely “alt” going on.

Roberts’ pipes might be too wobbly and labored for the straight “folk” circuit, but he’s a “better” singer, in a sense, than Will Oldham or Jason Molina, his repeated collaborators. He’s not as gimmicky. He doesn’t hijack the material. Nor is he as distinctive. He doesn’t make the material his own. He just plays and sings it.

Oldham himself sits in on “Molly Bawn,” “Admiral Cole” and a lovely take on “The Cruel Mother.” He might’ve upstaged Roberts horribly – in the past, critics have accused him and Molina of that. He doesn’t. He hardly registers. There’s a Buddhistic immobility to Roberts’ plainness. No Earthly Man has no earthly personality. It’s ego-free. Oldham can help, splendid, but he’s not going to make the songs carry on all crazy-like. They’re about death, goddamn it.

If I’ve made this record sound dull, I do apologize. Some moments sparkle in spite of themselves. Roberts sounds alienated, but not arrogant, like some of his labelmates often can. His vocal melodies lack warmth and pain, but I find No Earthly Man's blank stare profoundly appropriate.

By Emerson Dameron

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