No Earthly Man
he third solo album by Alasdair Roberts continues the archival tasks that were found on his previous two. But this time, Roberts has moved locations for the mixing, switched to a slightly larger label and hired hotshot producers. In so doing, he loses the fidelity that typified those past efforts, making No Earthly Man a failed experiment, but one that is both interesting and worthwhile to listen to.
Roberts move to Drag City shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. His Aberdeen brogue sounds a bit like the Oldham brothers, who incidentally produced this album. Recorded in Scotland and mixed in Kentucky, the album’s strange provenance charts the same way that Childe ballads made their way from the border counties to the Appalachians. You can hear the same songs in the highlands on both continents. (He notes this on the scant liner notes, telling the listener that with regards to “Sweet William” that "eleven versions were collected in England and twelve in Appalachia.")
The eight tracks here, all murder ballads, have the Childe numbers and at least one of them was collected by Sir Walter Scott in his collection Minstrelsy of The Scottish Border—which is about as canonical as you can get. Luckily, though, Roberts removes the religious or academic obsession that mars the older recordings of Childe’s ballads. Instead, he renews the arrangements created in the 1970s for Childe’s texts.
Despite this, in his previous recordings, Roberts had the ability to engage an entire geographic ethos in a single word (for example, in the tender and joyful ballad “Lullaby to Holly” from Misplaced Pets—where all of the complexities and ambiguities of domesticity can be found in the way he sings "otter") This is missing here, interpretive questions remain unresolved, and it is often an isolating and difficult album.
It doesn't start that way though—the first few tracks are dirges, but suitably loyal to their original intent. “Lord Ronald” (better known as Lord Randall) is the closest, even with the synthesizer made to sound like bagpipes in the concluding verse. What’s missing, though, is the anger inherent in the story—which might just be the Oldham's fault, as they tend here to hew too closely to tradition, allowing for none of the songs to truly be reworked in tempo or attitude. Imagine this sung as a punk snarl, updating it like Marianne Faithful on “Why'd Ya Do It?” The girl did kill the boy singer, after all.
“Molly Brawn” has the thickest dialect, and brief moments of dissonance where violence occurs, and the percussion is tense and sparse. It has the simplest narrative (the murder being a hunting accident with no one at fault). His version of “Cruel Mother,” with long sections of guitar and drums has a pagan energy—masking the fact, until the lyrics make it plain, that the song is about infanticide.
All of ballads here are long, but not nearly as long as the track that marks the middle, the nearly ten-minute long, “The Two Brothers.” It features a wrapping of dissonance and assonance, with lovely fiddles, bass and guitar hanging like ivy on a fallen brick wall. Which would be lovely, except the wall is a squealing, harsh and almost unlistenable metal scraping—like someone playing the saw badly. It is a ragged and difficult composition that goes on far too long, and breaks the tempo of the entire album irrevocably. It’s almost as though Roberts put it on the record to prove something: as though he wants us to know he can be as avant-garde as anyone else. It works though, depending on the mood of the listener, and would have been an interesting conceptual break if it didn't often border on absurdity.
But “The Two Brothers,” while the oddest song on here, actually seems to speak for much of the problem of this record. Roberts seems like he’s stopped trusting his own voice. And, as anyone familiar with his workcould tell you, Roberts voice is unlike anything extant—it is as ancient and needed as the ballads he sings. With that lack of trust comes reliance on your friends, producers, mixers, etc. The only perfect choice here was to make an album full of ballads. It could have been a violent reworking of age-old texts. Unfortunately, there’s not enough violence here to fully rend and flay, just enough to bruise.
Reviewed by: Anthony Easton
Reviewed on: 2005-04-08