The Amber Gatherers
lasdair Roberts's albums bring into relief just how seldom true populism informs folk-rock recordings. The Scottish singer and guitarist is a ventriloquist, effectively inhabiting a number of lyrical personas without asserting his ego. His high, clean voice rings strongly and with great character, but it remains firmly in service to the songs, lacking the kinds of idiosyncrasies that allow performers like Josephine Foster to exist as individuated auteurs when performing others' songs. When Roberts plays a song, he transubstantiates into some sort of cog in a Jungian machine of Scottish collective consciousness; a loss of self more fundamental than that signified by psychedelic, lysergic Incredible String Band-isms occurs. And when Roberts reveals his array of complex guitar tunings in The Amber Gatherers' liner notes, it's as though he's telling us to go interpret the record's songs on our own, to expand the public space in which his music exists.
Even his original material—which is what this album consists of entirely—sounds like it's existed since the Dark Ages. Whereas anachronism represents a single style in Joanna Newsom's multivocal lyrics, obsolete language is par for Roberts's course. His control of tone is immaculate, and on the two instances when he does make modern references, he couches them in archaic diction: Arkansas and Alabama are "tornadic," while "mortar, quickened with firewater" is the stuff that rests in our databases. He also employs elaborate rhetorical figures: "The Cruel War" boasts four lines of unwieldy chiasmus.
For all its stylistic escapism, though, The Amber Gatherers is by no means a wrongheaded ethnomusicological foray. Unlike mid-twentieth century left-wing folk champions like Alan Lomax, Roberts carries no overtly stated political agenda. His interest is the human heart and how basic and unmitigated by context its workings are. And like his 2005 collection of traditional death ballads, No Earthly Man, this album keys in on the uncanny. In "Waxwing," a narrator accepts, rather than fears, death, but unsettling fatalism leaves the song feeling like a downer: "I can do nothing but fly in the wake of my kin / I will fly onward undaunted and die on the wing." And when the speaker in "I Have a Charm" insists that he is shielded from evil forces, it might not be unwise to doubt him, as he entertains images of hell's minions a bit longer than someone wholly immune to them might.
I haven't mentioned the music itself yet, and for good reason: there's little to say about it. Acoustic guitar and dry, plodding drums drive each song, and the occasional electric six-string, banjo, or handclap spices things up. More nuanced accompaniment would probably dislodge these songs from their universalist plateau, though. So at least it's a sacrifice made in the name of allowing the songs to pursue alternate lives in the hands of others.
Reviewed by: Phillip Buchan
Reviewed on: 2007-01-09