Martyn Bennett is a Scottish theatre director and actor who makes albums every once in a while. Grit is his attempt to reclaim Celtic music from the dustbin of cliché, of what he calls the “misty-lensed and fanciful” view of it as all Riverdance and bagpipes. He does this by taking samples from field recordings and old albums of Scots singers and undergirding them with techno beats, wedding the old and the new together.
“So it’s basically Moby’s Play, except from Scotland instead of America.”
Well, I can’t really say nae to all tha’. Bennett doesn’t really do much to discourage that interpretation, either; he and his shaved head and indie t-shirt and furrowed brow all just scream “MOBY” from the cover, and the songs themselves don’t stray very far from that path. Y’know, except Scottish. So a couple of points off for unoriginality.
“But does that matter, if the tracks are hot?”
Fair point, friend. And, for a while, you’re actually on to something. Because “Move” is a pretty dope track, with its keening high Romany vocals lifted from Sheila Stewart’s version of a Ewan McColl song, laid over an industrial clanky beat with a bit of funky fuzz to it. It doesn’t work perfectly, but that is its true perfection; everything’s kind of all over the place, which is cool, and I could hear this breaking off in a club, even though it would scare people at first. The multi-flute action is nice, and the fourth-wall-busting audible edits have some sweetness and light to them. I’m about to recommend this whole album just on this track.
But then the second track is a lot like the first: another high keening female sampled vocal (this time by the more traditionally melodic Lizzie Higgins), and then the beat drops (this time it is slower, a Bonham away from being a straight Beasties rip) and then the Celtic touches (this time they are buzzing droney string things) and then the watch-me-sweat joins, and it’s all just very familiar, the same way it is on track 7 when the same formula is employed for “Ale House”, which features the mellifluous vocal work of Lizzie Higgins’ mother, Jeanne Robertson.
Lemme see: yeah, “Nae Regrets” has the same shape, too, except for the Edith Piaf sample that haunts the track, because the other sampled singer, Annie Watkins, reminds Bennett of Piaf. I shouldn’t complain, though, because this song kicks ass like ass is going out of style. (Really, honestly: if ass ever goes out of style, I want someone to put me out of my misery quickly and with nae regrets.)
There are a couple of pieces here that have a different thing happening: a spoken English take on Psalm 18 to go with the sampled sung Gaelic version called “Liberation”; a spoken take on war to go with an old sad war song on “Why” (okay, some pretty but boring but pretty guitar here); a spoken story on “Storyteller” to close us out. So there are two main templates, then, I guess, with a third in the weakest piece here, an “abstract tone-poem” improvised by Bennett and his wife Kirsten that mimics the shape of a traditional Highland wedding. It’s called, with Bennett’s straightforward stolidity, “Wedding”, and it’s dead boring from the beginning through its 5:45 running time in that special way that only abstract tone-poem takes on drone-rock can be.
But lest I sound like a bratty asshole, let me just say that “Rant” is a top thing, a song that keeps threatening to be a dance-floor stormer, a song I’d be happy to put on all my mixtapes for the next few years, something my friend Jim Titus should hear. It doesn’t really BOOM enough for me, and the bass-horn thing is obviously influenced too heavily by the Nortec Collective’s take on tuba-techno, but Jimmie McBeath’s found-sound version of the great ballad about the hanging of the fiddler MacPherson is spot-on, and supported perfectly by the squeak of the violins, and I like it muchly. So now you know I’m less of a bratty asshole, and that this is somewhat better than it might have sounded like it was at first.
None of these pieces are flat-out awful, and some of them are pretty okay, but the repetition of form and too-heavy indebtedness to Moby renders the whole project just kinda okay. Maybe, if you have some stupid aversion to Celtic music because you think it’s all the same, you need this; if you’re a DJ and you don’t mind some hot dance tracks, you could make pretty good use of at least three or four of these ten tracks. But that’s not an album, and it’s also not the kind of thing I want to hear any more of. I’d rather just listen to the original singers, who are amazing and weird and interesting enough for me.