On his second outing for ECM, Scottish bard and minstrel Robin Williamson moves to resurrect the spirit if not the letter of the ghost of his former Incredible String Band. On his last outing for the label he appeared completely solo, reinterpeting in musical settings the works of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and others. The result was stunning. This time out his muses include poets William Blake, Walt Whitman, and Henry Vaughan. Williamson in characteristic fashion ups the ante by enlisting the help of jazz and folk musicians from all over the world. First there's the renowned Swedish string and flute player Ale Möller, who also plays hammered dulcimer, a mandola, drone flutes, and vibraphones. There's also American microtonal improviser and composer Mat Maneri on violin, saxophonist Paul Dunmall, and bassist Mick Hutton from Great Britain. What this team does is to free him to reach wider and deeper into theskeletons of the works he interprets. For starters, there is the ambient, shimmering joy in "The Morning Watch/A Song of Joys," in which Williamson combines poems by Whitman and Vaughan in a single work, moving from a Celtic droning melody to a recitation of delirious intensity accompanied by Dunmall's improvising horns and rich rhythmic atmospheres by the rest of the band. "Here to Burn" is an original song with quotes from Blake's "Marriage of Heaven and Hell." In the ancient Celtic tradition, Williamson's melody brings forth the nature of Blake's visionary ranting and singing on the page. "The Four Points Are Thus Beheld," however, is the album's centerpiece, the hinge on which it turns. With Dunmall's bleating, moaning horn and Williamson's Shakespearan delivery as the band fills in the cracks with a sound so ragged and true, its nearly dreamlike. The tale from Blake's"Jerusalem" becomes a first-person treatise on birth, rebirth, destruction, and transformation that is utterly believable. Ultimately this record is not about music or words. Skirting the River Road is about offering a glimpse into the beauty of language as it interacts with itself and other sounds, and of offering the works of the poets and Williamson's own songs as a living, breathing meditation on the continued relevance of the past in the present, how it haunts attempts at generating meaning. It is not an anachronistic little album of quaint songs and recitations, but a dangerous, profound, humorous, and even tragic offering of possibility.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek