Alasdair Roberts' songs have a tendency to nestle themselves into your brain and take up residence there, but unlike other less endearing and perhaps more irksome ear worms, Roberts' work is steeped in originality and brilliant arrangement. The Glaswegian icon consistently blends the time-honoured British Isles folk tradition with a contemporary twist to form an inventive style that has led to great (albeit somewhat cultish) success for the veteran songwriter.
Working with storied Chicago record label Drag City since 1997 and often associated with label mates and nu-folk/freak-folk artists like Bonnie 'Prince' Billy and Bill Callahan, Roberts is viewed as a more traditional folk songwriter in his home country of Scotland — in the same vein as Martin Carthy or Dick Gaughan. But regardless of influence or comparison, the musician's latest effort, Pangs, is a worthy contribution to a growing catalogue of impressive work.
This time out, Roberts (vocals and guitar) is joined by longtime collaborators Stevie Jones on bass and keys and Alex Neilson on drums and percussion. The trio (in conjunction with some album guests) kick the album off with the title track, which serves as the perfect introduction for newcomers to Roberts' music. The track starts with a familiar folk melody before breaking into the first verse, as Roberts sings in his thick Scottish accent, "Drink with me now times are harder." It's a solemn note, yet the song drives along energetically, almost optimistically, contrasting nicely with the dour lyrical content in a familiar Roberts way.
The very next track, "No Dawn Song," is another album highlight that finds Roberts spinning a web of melody while flexing his vocal muscles through ever-changing song tempo and structure.
"Angry Laughing God" provides another example of Roberts mixing the traditional with the contemporary, as the track starts with an R.E.M.-like, jangly rock riff before morphing into a spirited and fun song with traditional folk elements that will appeal to all ages. "The Downward Road" and "Scarce of Fishing" (a touching ballad about loved ones lost) are also strong cuts.
Roberts' music can be challenging at first for some listeners. But while his thick, sometimes hard to understand Scottish accent and the unconventional song structure can be off-putting, Pangs, like the bulk of his work, rewards repeated listens. Though it's not quite perfect — some songs wear out their welcome before they finish — this album is written and arranged in a sonically and lyrically engaging way, and will surely excite the faithful, even if it fails to convert fence-sitters. (Drag City)