|Ballads Of The Book ~ CD Ref: CHEM098 CD|
Scotland On Sunday
The idea...To bring together Scotlands best writers and rock bands. The result...An 18-track album featuring collaborations by names such as Idlewild, Ian Rankin, Ali Smith, and Sons & Daughters. The verdict...By ANDREW MOTION, POET LAUREATE
COMPOSERS HAVE been collaborating with writers ever since time began, yet the pairing of authors with non- classical musicians is still comparatively unusual. That's what the Chemikal Underground record label thinks, anyway - which explains why they have introduced Ballads Of The Book with such an excited flourish. The idea for this album began with Idlewild's Roddy Woomble. Following his band's work with Edwin Morgan on their album The Remote Part, interested parties wrung some money out of the Scottish Arts Council and arranged for a number of other distinguished Scottish writers to combine with assorted singers and groups.
Chemikal Underground claim that "the list of those involved reads like a who's who of the great and the good in Scottish literature". James Kelman, Irvine Welsh and Kathleen Jamie may not agree (they're not represented) but it's not an entirely vain boast: there's new work from Morgan himself, Alasdair Gray, Ali Smith, AL Kennedy, Louise Welsh and Ian Rankin among others, and new music from the likes of Mike Heron, Karine Polwart and Trashcan Sinatras. The list goes a long way towards justifying the claims made for it, and the whole enterprise is given further potency by addressing its listeners in a clearly nationalistic spirit. Alasdair Gray has designed the album sleeve, which features a pattern of Saltires mixed with images of musical instruments, and the phrase: "Sing as if you live in the early days of a better nation."
As things turn out, Gray's injunction is interpreted pretty broadly. True, there are some songs that have a specific Scottish reference (in The Sixth Stone, for instance, Ian Rankin wonders whether the eponymous hero of his lyric "dreamed of lochs and Highlands" while "cruising down Route 66"); and there are others in which Scottish musical traditions - the folk tradition in particular - engenders a strong and definite sense of place. But by and large, the music is as well-informed by international influences (Nick Cave in The War On Love Song by Sons And Daughters) as it is by local ones, and the words are as willing to deal with the perennial themes of popular music (love and loss) as they are with more overtly political themes. This is probably just as well, if we accept that patriotic feelings can be as well-served in art by refractions as by exact reflections.
For all this breadth of expression, Ballads Of The Book has a feisty sense of coherence. Most of the recordings have a slightly echoing, simplified and home-made feel (reminiscent of Dylan's Basement Tapes), and a directness of delivery that feels authentic and likeable. Likeable, that is, if listeners don't mind a certain amount of earnestness coming through their speakers.
Maybe because the sense of special occasion got the better of them, and maybe because this was accompanied by a (competitive?) feeling that they had to produce something significant, there are a few tracks that wander from sincerity into something more angsty. The Rebel On His Own Tonight by ex-Arab Strap man Malcolm Middleton and Alan Bissett is a case in point, as is Laura Hird's Where And When, with music by King Creosote: "And where will we be/when it finally comes around?/In a crowd where no-one sees but us/on a street, in hell, a train?/Will it never arrive?/Will we let it come?/ Where will we be when it finally comes?/At the end of the day/the only truth I understand is my own."
The melancholy weight of these reflections is both confirmed and lifted by the music that accompanies them - and this, of course, is something that all such collaborations are able to offer. But in the most impressive pieces on the album, neither words nor music use each other as a crutch. The opening track - Song For Irena by John Burnside, with music by the former Incredible String Band member Mike Heron - has a unity that feels at once original and in touch with popular conventions. Burnside's other contribution - Girl, with music by Teenage Fanclub's Norman Blake - is even more impressive.
The simplicity and wistfulness of the melody is touchingly well-suited to the delicacy of the lyrics, which tenderly capture the feelings of a man in later life for the enduring signs of the "girl" in the woman he celebrates: "And yet, where love is possible/it's her I love in you/a girlhood in the greenery of evening/she's perfect in her secrecy/ she only speaks in dreams/the gold of her turning aside/and the blue of her silence."
Similar sorts of sympathy occur in A Sentimental Song by Lord Cut-Glass and Alasdair Gray, The Good Years by Karine Polwart and Edwin Morgan and Half An Apple by The Trashcan Sinatras and Ali Smith. Strikingly, the lyrics for all these songs are written in very simple language, but keep a weather eye on the traditions in which they work. Gray's words, in particular (and as the title suggests), recognises the use that popular music makes of sentimental tropes, makes a pre-emptive strike against them, then uses their residual power to make a genuine emotional appeal. Whichever side of the Border you live, this is called having your cake and eating it - and in this case it tastes good. To the accompaniment of plucked and played strings, Gray's words tell us: "I have travelled a very long way/I have been where no bird has ever flown/I have been and I've returned while cradled in your arms/and my sleep is now the deepest I have known."
On the basis of these songs alone, Chemikal Underground, and their backers, should feel this album is a success. But even those collaborations which work less well, because they are less integrated, or more stiffly self-conscious, are worth having.
The idea of "early days of a better nation" has produced something which speaks of ingenuity, enterprise and confidence. Record companies elsewhere would do well to sit up and take notice. [4/5]
BBC Collective - 22nd February, 2007
Take a drop of everything great about Scottish pop: Chemikal Undergrounds indie vérité, the Fence Collectives homespun acid folk, national treasure Norman Blake. Now add lyrics penned by compatriot scribes, including Ian Rankin and A L Kennedy, and stir What could have been a cocktail to have even Aidan Moffat reaching for the headache pills is instead a frothing Irn Bru of talent: eighteen songs of romance, violence and menace, where Moffat and fellow Arab Strap veteran Malcolm Middletons jaded drawls rub up against the rousing, brittle folk of unsigned act Foxface. All that, and barely an overwrought rhyme in sight. [4/5]
It's a government funded album, written by novelists, performed by a bunch of underachieving musicians. And it's brilliant.
When poets and novelists get involved in pop music, disaster usually ensues; the writing of great poetry or prose does not usually translate to the writing of song lyrics one only needs to hear U2s Salman Rushdie collaboration, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, or indeed read the novel from whence it came, to realise this. Equally, try reading a Nicky Wire/Richey Edwards lyric, or something by Morrissey, as poetry itll barely lift off the page.
So, there are many reasons why Ballads Of The Book should be a complete disaster its a collaboration between some of Scotlands best contemporary writers and their musical counterparts, including a selection of unsigned bands; conceived by Idlewilds Roddy Woomble and funded by the Arts Council of Scotland, its a project that sounds extremely worthy but ultimately doomed this is a government funded rock record, written by novelists, performed by a bunch of underachieving musicians.
Fortunately for all involved, its a triumph there are no cloying, cumbersome lyrics, no-one embarrasses themselves, and there are more than a few discoveries to made here; not least are unsigned group Foxes, whose co-write with Rody Gorman, Dreamcatcher, stomps along like The Pogues covering the Rawhide theme tune.
There has been a tendency with Scottish acts to be overtly proud of their roots while simultaneously sounding like theyre from Arkansas or Georgia; think Primal Scream, Wet Wet Wet or indeed the Idlewild of old. One of the great things about Ballads Of The Book is that it is an extremely Scottish record accents are here in force, and the tone is overwhelmingly folky with an every day romanticism, thanks mostly to the fantastic lyrics. Alan Bisset pens a wonderful vignette for Malcolm Middleton to sing The Rebel On His Own Tonight is one of the albums highlights.
The music is outstanding throughout the artists have clearly been inspired by the challenge of co-writing, penning some wonderfully evocative tunes to match the lyrical content Alasdair Roberts The Leaving captures the sense of loss in the lyrics, while Sons And Daughters The War On Love Song does exactly what it says on the tin. There is one slight misfire Norman Blake/John Burnsides Girl, although a perfectly decent, if unoriginal, tune, is a little out of place here, sounding more West Coast USA than West Coast of Scotland.
A bold experiment that miraculously is pulled off, Ballads Of The Book will hopefully pave the way for more collaborations of this type Irish and certainly Welsh versions of the project would be an exciting prospect. But please, let this be one thing that Arts Council England isnt interested at chucking money at. Honestly, can you imagine the kind of shite Martin Amis or Will Self would come up with?
Inspired by his experience working with poet Edwin Morgan during the recording of Remote Part in 2002, vocalist Roddy Woomble of Scottish four-piece Idlewild wanted to explore the artistic possibilities of collaborations between the literary talents of Scotlands writing community with a diverse range of musicians, both new and well-established. With the generous support of the Scottish Arts Councilwhose funding recently brought us Weightlifting, a smashing return to form by nearly defunct Kilmarnock popsters the Trashcan Sinatrasand of Glasgow record label Chemikal Underground, the result is the intriguing album Ballads of the Book. The genesis of the project is also to be the subject of a documentary for Scottish television, though its not clear whether the film will see broader release.
Writers contributing lyrics include established authors Edwin Morgan and Alasdair Gray, contemporary talents Ali Smith, A.L. Kennedy, Louise Welsh, and Ian Rankin, poets Robin Robertson, Bill Duncan, and Rody Gorman, as well as successful novelists Michel Faber, Alan Bissett, and Laura Hird. Bands setting those lyrics to music include Woombles own Idlewild, Teenage Fanclubs Norman Blake, Alasdair Roberts, the Trashcan Sinatras, famed 60s folksinger Vashti Bunyan, former Arab Strap frontman Aidan Moffatt (as Aidan Moffatt and the Best Ofs), ex-Delgado Alun Woodward (as Lord Cut-Glass), and Emma Pollock (fellow Glaswegian, former Delgado, and Chemikal Underground founder), among many others. In the words of Dundees A.L. Kennedy, its like a reverse Hollywood.
Because Ballads of the Book features songs written by fifteen different lyricists and set to music by eighteen different acts (Edwin Morgan, John Burnside, and Rody Gorman contributed lyrics for two tracks each), I expected it to be all over the map thematically and stylistically. Surprisingly, however, the resulting collection of folk and indie pop is fairly cohesive, and the concept works more often than not. Though many writers contributed verses with particular artists in mind, the lyrics were circulated amongst the musicians as they came in, and were passed around until they found a musical home. Thus Half an Apple, Ali Smiths spare, poignant poem about love lost, was originally written for folk singer Kate Rusby, but eventually fell into the lap of the Trashcan Sinatras, who turned it into a melancholy ballad featuring slide guitar and Frank Readers yearning tenor.
Many of the songs touch on weighty issues of aging, domesticity, war, and alcoholism, the latter most notably on the boozy, amusingly titled A Calvinist Narrowly Avoids Pleasure ("Give me my whiskey bottle / Give me the moist sliding up / As the cork squeaks out of the neck / Releasing not the soft focus rustic gold of advertisers / But the male blood brotherhood of generations"). Some of the songs sound pretty much like I expected: Norman Blake turns lyrics from John Burnside into Girl, a catchy pop song that wouldnt be out of place on a Teenage Fanclub album, while Vashti Bunyan turns Rodge Glasss lyrics into a fragile acoustic lament The Fire. Others are more surprising, such as former Delgado Woodward, who set lyrics by Alasdair Gray to music, producing the wistful A Sentimental Song ("I have traveled a very long way / I have been where no bird has ever flown / I have been and Ive returned / Im cradled in your arms / And my sleep is now the deepest I have known"). Best of all, however, is the sprightly pop of Emma Pollocks Jesus on the Cross ("Jesus on the cross / Hanging in the rain / Let me give you an umbrella / To help to ease your pain"), featuring lyrics by Louise Welsh. Its definitely time to give my old Delgados discs another listen. [7/10]
Mixmag - March 2007
Compilation Of The Month
Very Scottish set of literary collaborations.
if your idea of experimental music stops at abstract electro, then look away now. For the most part, these collaborations between famous Scottish authors and singers are fairly acoustic-based songs. However, some of the post folktronica comedown tracks with lyrics from respected writers like Ian Rankin, Alasdair Gray and AL Kennedy, really do touch some peculiar bits of the brain and stick with you for days. From teenage Fanclub's Norman Blake's vintage psychedelic pop to Malcolm 'Arab Strap' Middleton's driving drum machines, from Vashti Bunyan's soul-soothing voice, to Sons And Daughters' spaghetti Western indie snarl - it's rich, mentally and physically stimulating music throughout. Tom Middleton, for example, will have a ball with this. [4/5]
Scottish poet Edwin Morgan collaborated with Idlewild on 2002s The Remote Part. At the time, Roddy Woomble was having to defend himself against various criticisms of his pseudo-literary ambitions, some of which were needlessly harsh. Collaborating with a renowned poet was not the safest move, but it paid dividends, resulting in one of the most satisfying songs the band ever recorded.
Glutton for punishment that he is, for Ballads Of The Book, Woomble brings together the very best in Scottish music at the moment, and couple their musical contributions with the words of the countrys greatest living writers. This can be perceived as over-ambitious or even conceited, depending on your viewpoint, but one listen to this blows all the cynicism out of your mind.
It is a genuinely startling work, surprising in both delicacy and its confidence. Every single artist on this rises to the challenge, and the melding of styles and moods is seamless and perfect. Any discussion on the words on this record are futile, such is the depth and perception on display here. Suffice to say everyone involved can be justifiably proud of what they have achieved. In some cases it has resulted in a career highlight.
It is no exaggeration to say that this is the best album to come out of Scotland in a long time. [5/5]