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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

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 ďPrinceĒ Billy) and was full of risk, but sometimes faltered in the interpretive stakes. (Itís still a great album.)

But with Too Long in This Condition, Robertsís metaphysical odyssey through traditional song reaches its peak (at least to date). Itís both the most confident thing heís 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 albumís supporting cast. Robertsís friends now include folk musicians like singer Emily Portman (once of The Devilís Interval) and fiddle player Alastair Caplin (King Arthurís Men); subsequently, this is the straightest, most Ďtradí Roberts has sounded. Itís particularly telling on songs like ďThe Two Sisters,Ē where Caplinís fiddle, and Portmanís chorus vocals (shared with piper Donald Lindsay), paints the song in near-archaic shades. Portmanís and Robertsís duet vocals on ďLittle Sir HughĒ are chilling, with the accompanying fiddle and cello from Caplin and Christine Hanson charting the songís troubled emotional depths with icy beauty; the closing ballad, ďBarbara Allen,Ē is graceful, stately, with beautiful flute from long-time accompanist Tom Crossley (also of International Airport and The Pastels), which artfully complements Robertsís compassionate delivery. And Robertsís research is finely writ in both the liner notes and the performances ó these are knowing renditions, but the knowledge isnít 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 songwriterís thought patterns, but the songs Roberts tackles, not Ďcoversí 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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