Alasdair Roberts / Robin Robertson

Hirta Songs

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This eighth album from the Scottish studies enthusiast and contemporary folk artist Alasdair Roberts is a collaboration with the Perthshire-born poet Robin Robertson. Their inspiration for Hirta Songs is St. Kilda, the tiny and remote archipelago that lies 110 miles west of mainland Scotland. Believed to have been continuously inhabited from the Bronze Age, St.Kilda was abandoned in 1930 when the remaining 36 islanders requested to be removed to the mainland following a post-World War I period which brought fatal bouts of influenza and failing crops. While the majority of the tracks here are live-sounding, acoustic guitar- and fiddle-fueled ensemble takes -- with Roberts singing Robertson's evocative verse -- the album is perfectly paced by the inclusion of a couple of tender and brief harp-led instrumental pieces: "Laoidh Fhionnlaigh Oig" and "Tuireadh nan Hiortach." Sensibly, "Leaving St. Kilda" and "The Well of Youth" -- the two dense, lyrical poems that pre-date the album's sessions by at least six years -- are performed by Robertson as spoken word pieces with gentle acoustic accompaniment from Roberts. The combination of Robertson's detailed geographic references and his imagery of the island's landscape and wildlife, work seamlessly with Roberts' Gaelic folk-inspired melodies, so much so that the Roberts-fronted material could fit onto any of his other releases. This is partly due to the familiar faces that accompany him here. Both Tom Crossley and Rafe Fitzpatrick are retained from the sessions for his first album of 2013, the humanistic A Wonder Working Stone, while harpist Corinne Lewis and Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band make guest appearances. Only on the jaunty "The Plain of Spells" does Roberts' vocal delivery betray the fact that he is singing someone else's poetry, such is the consistency of vision between the musician and the poet throughout the remainder of the record. As a result, Hirta Songs is as conceptually powerful as such acclaimed, thematically similar releases as British Sea Power's Man of Aran and Richard Skelton's Landings, in the sense that it manages to create a strong and haunting emotional bond between the listener and a place, regardless of whether the listener has set foot there.

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