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Alasdair Roberts & Friends - Too Long in This Condition

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Artist: Alasdair Roberts & Friends

Album: Too Long in This Condition

Label: Drag City

Review date: Jun. 30, 2010


Alasdair Roberts & Friends - "The Daemon Lover" (Too Long in This Condition)


Scottish bard Alasdair Roberts has now recorded three albums of traditional music, as counterpart to his own songwriting. The first, The Crook Of My Arm, was recorded during the twilight years of his group Appendix Out, and its simple acoustic settings felt like disarmament from the increasingly rich arrangements measured out to his own songs when performed by his group. The second, No Earthly Man, was produced by Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie “Prince” Billy) and was full of risk, but sometimes faltered in the interpretive stakes. (It’s still a great album.)

But with Too Long in This Condition, Roberts’s metaphysical odyssey through traditional song reaches its peak (at least to date). It’s both the most confident thing he’s done, and the record that most focuses the architecture of each song. The arrangements are clear, lucid and free of unnecessary flourish, the performances limber, fluid and articulate.

This is partly due to the album’s supporting cast. Roberts’s friends now include folk musicians like singer Emily Portman (once of The Devil’s Interval) and fiddle player Alastair Caplin (King Arthur’s Men); subsequently, this is the straightest, most ‘trad’ Roberts has sounded. It’s particularly telling on songs like “The Two Sisters,” where Caplin’s fiddle, and Portman’s chorus vocals (shared with piper Donald Lindsay), paints the song in near-archaic shades. Portman’s and Roberts’s duet vocals on “Little Sir Hugh” are chilling, with the accompanying fiddle and cello from Caplin and Christine Hanson charting the song’s troubled emotional depths with icy beauty; the closing ballad, “Barbara Allen,” is graceful, stately, with beautiful flute from long-time accompanist Tom Crossley (also of International Airport and The Pastels), which artfully complements Roberts’s compassionate delivery. And Roberts’s research is finely writ in both the liner notes and the performances — these are knowing renditions, but the knowledge isn’t expressed in an overbearing manner, nor is it their only hand.

If Roberts were simply an interpreter of traditional song, then Too Long in This Condition would be the man doing his bidding for the present time. But as Roberts is also a songwriter, his albums of traditional music beg the question: What exactly does he get out of the experience? American folk duo Damon & Naomi once suggested that the cover version was a learning process, inhabiting the original songwriter’s thought patterns, but the songs Roberts tackles, not ‘covers’ as such, have generally been passed down through oral tradition, songlines mapped by the clack of tongue against the roof of the mouth, the flow of breath through teeth and lips, instead of copyright credits.

Roberts and his friends thus inhabit the song, the communicative vessel itself, not the footsteps of the songwriter. Or alternately, they take history seriously yet lightly on their shoulders, the better to trust the cumulative energies that course through these texts. Either way, the experience is uncanny.

By Jon Dale

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