A gorgeous collaboration between Scottish folk singer Alasdair Roberts, electronic composer Amble Skuse, and early music pianist David McGuinness, What News frames a set of historical U.K. ballads within a minimalist context that is both powerful and immediate. Although the project originated from an idea of Roberts' and was released by his longtime label Drag City, this is undeniably the union of three peers combining distinctive but complementary disciplines. Rather than relying on his typical guitar arrangements, Roberts approached McGuinness, with whom he had previously worked in the former's eclectic Concerto Caledonia ensemble, and asked him to adapt the songs for fortepiano (a piano of late 18th and 19th century design often associated with composers like Haydn and Mozart). While Skuse may seem like the outlier here, she too has a great affection for traditional material of the British Isles and her contributions are a key element in how the songs on What News are presented. Even before the first piano note, it is her eerie tonal collage of electronic hum and clattering lens snaps that introduces "The Dun Broon Bride." Roberts, whose reedy brogue has never sounded so appropriately applied, makes a brief electric guitar appearance on this strident ballad, but otherwise acts solely as the trio's vocalist. For his part, McGuinness constructs the backbone of the album with rich and nuanced keyboard performances on a restored 1844 pianoforte and his own 1920s dulcitone, a melodious and quite beguiling tined keyboard endemic to Glasgow. Building slowly but with great drama, Roberts and McGuinness turn in a masterful rendition of the hunting tragedy "Johnny O' the Brine," while Skuse paints the backdrop with bizarrely manipulated crowd murmurs. The gentle dulcitone and vocal duet "Rosie Anderson" is pure bittersweet magic and leads into "The Fair Flower of Northumberland," one of several tracks greatly enhanced by Skuse's deftly applied natural soundscapes. With its beautifully chosen material and unorthodox construction, What News has that rare timeless feeling to it, effortlessly placing the ancient within the present as only the right group of artists can manage to do.
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AllMusic Review by Timothy Monger