Dusted Reviews

Alasdair Roberts & Friends - A Wonder Working Stone

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Reviews

Artist: Alasdair Roberts & Friends

Album: A Wonder Working Stone

Label: Drag City

Review date: Jan. 17, 2013

Back in 2010, Tim Adams of The Guardian hinted (or perhaps even foretold) of A Wonder Working Stone. In that interview, Alasdair Roberts divulged his “interest in dark familial relationships, those Jungian archetypes and fears," and the use of the ballad throughout history as a psychoanalytic tool. Oversimplified, from within a jewel-shaped motif, constrained by community but enlivened by independence, man forges a self — it’s an enduring conundrum. His/her thought leads to identity, identity to criterion, and criterion to the narrowing of society through civil war, persecution, migration, emigration and clannishness. Applying this philosophy to an already untidy and growing digest of British musical history is a daring exercise, yet it is a fitting enough overture to a songbook meditation on loss — loss of self, faith, history, and even life.

In A Wonder Working Stone, Roberts continues to tinker thoughtfully with the shared tradition of the Isles, always somewhat familiar but modern and discordant enough to render pause and consideration. Traditional styles abound — such as the Gaelic jig, planxty, lamentation, shanty, madrigal and reel — but everywhere one finds abstraction in form, mood, melodic line, texture and rhyme.

Listeners who have kept Roberts within earshot over the years know that with each album arrives an entirely new stylistic pasticcio of balladic storytelling, and A Wonder Working Stone does not disappoint in this regard. From song to song, traditional medley arrangements designated by a slash line-break compete with a new kind of classical variant approaching the cantata. In these, pre-classical oratorios arranged in conversation are hewn together with scordatura and festive strings and sometimes splashed with a Lindsey Buckingham-style electric guitar.

The album is exhausting. Songs are both long and stylistically challenging. Stand out tracks include “The Merry Wake” and “The Wheels of the World / The Conundrum.” Both are complex and beautiful expositions of the Jungian motif. In the former, a fiddle-led rollicking jig bleeds into a subtle lamentation. The pagans will dance and drink in defiance while the clergy stand helplessly by. It’s a bit of a delightful and captivating mess, which culminates in a dramatic tremulating bridge and a Pentangle-esque reprisal. The latter is a seaside lullaby for the armchair philosopher already well in his/her cups.

One of the most challenging tracks, “Song Composed in December / The Bluebell Polka / Rap Y Clychau Glâs,” falls between a Seamus Blake Gaelic lesson and a Gruff Rhys appreciation. The effort does not always work, but the distance traveled in time and space is impressive. You may find yourself unearthing a polka from the continent, then effortless psyched out in Appalachia. While Robert’s sean-nós style singing and lutanist guitar work dominates throughout, guest vocalist, Olivia Chaney adds ineffable beauty to duets and an intoxicatingly haunting murmur to “The End of Breeding,” a song almost too lovely for Robert’s folksy and limericky banter.

Roberts plays with the Jungian motif throughout A Wonder Working Stone. The Highlands and its people lose a collective identity through no small effort on the part of their own intercultural self-destruction. Loss of country, loss of youthful innocence, all are traditional balladic themes dusted off and abstracted along with the music. It was marvelously fitting to conclude this exploration with “Oganaich An Oir-Fhuilt Bhuidhe,” a traditional Scots-Gaelic song written by a Malcolm Gillies, born (and died) in Nova Scotia.

By Erin Leigh Zimman

Other Reviews of Alasdair Roberts & Friends

Too Long in This Condition

Read More

View all articles by Erin Leigh Zimman

Find out more about Drag City

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.