Alasdair Roberts

A Wonder Working Stone

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It's been said that the compositions of Glasgow-based folk artist Alasdair Roberts sound as if they were written hundreds of years ago. This is certainly testament to the Will Oldham protégé's nigh-on two-decade quest to promote the communal and social aspect of folk music, rather than the confessional and personal approach taken by many acoustic guitar-wielding singer/songwriters who have popularized the genre in recent decades. While Roberts has been acclaimed for successfully tackling whole albums of traditional material with considerable aplomb -- see his sparse but assured 2001 full solo debut, Crook of My Arm; 2005's unflinching collection of murder ballads, No Earthly Man; or the tender and well-researched 2010 set Too Long in This Condition -- never has his music sounded so universal and inclusive than it does on this set of originals. From the invitation to the gunpowder and wine-fueled "The Merry Wake" through to the uncharacteristically jovial, brass-fueled "Scandal and Trance/We Shall Walk Through the Streets of the City," Roberts introduces listeners to an array of characters -- "the joker," "the jester," "the banker," "the broker" -- whose key message is "Get over your tiny self/Because all days will end in joy." It's not just these archetypal figures who provide the revelry and camaraderie on A Wonder Working Stone. Listeners also get this in spades from the accomplished cast of musicians who build upon Roberts' idiosyncratic open-tuned acoustic guitar work and sway around his dense, lyrical songs, such as the sprawling and philosophical nine-minute "The Wheels of the World/Conundrum." The electric guitar of former Trembling Bells player Ben Reynolds nods to that of Richard Thompson across a number of the tracks here, but what really impresses is the effortlessness with which the instruments meld to realize Roberts' vision of collectivism. Also, his way of dealing with weighty themes -- the stubbornness of fading love on "Fusion of Horizons," mortality on "The End of Breeding" -- lends the album a gravitas that prevents it from becoming a mere exercise in celebration. Although Roberts attended lectures and delved into the archives at the School of Scottish Studies to shore up material for previous albums, it's fascinating to find that his dogged research has loaded these self-penned pieces with all of the mystery, language, and myth usually found in years-old traditional ballads.

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