Mairi Morrison & Alasdair Roberts: Urstan

Mairi Morrison & Alasdair Roberts
Drag City

A short while after I’d listened to this album for the first time I came across an online video of the excellent Appalachian singer and banjo player Elizabeth LaPrelle, and the similarity between the bones of her song and the songs on Urstan shouldn’t have struck me so strongly but it did — one thing to know a thing technically, as a fact, and another thing to hear it: LePrelle repeating her refrain, “the Gulf of Mexico” with the same regularity as “be a true love of mine,” in Morrison and Roberts’ “The Tri-Coloured House”, and the pattern of her lyrical news established in neat sets of lines and lilts as it is in their version of “Never Wed An Old Man”, which they’ve borrowed — say the album notes — from a recording done by Alan Lomax in 1953. The song back then was being carried by “the Aberdeenshire Traveller singer Jeannie Robertson,” and now, if you take her surname apart — Robert and -son — and notice the rebirth of those syllables in the surnames of the two new singers — you might fantasise the woman decomposing herself, coming apart, and reassembling, keeping her song.

The subject matter is different on both continents, but the skeleton endures, or the coral grows out from its basic organic unit, or however you want to put it into prose visuals: do as you like.

And the traffic doesn’t go only one way, there are American notes in the Scottish songs, a harmonica making its way into “Làrach do Thacaidean”, matching blues to the British music in a way that says, “This is part of the current world, this music,” as so many good folk albums do, making the point that the folk themselves, the collective, is an omnivorous creature, and will take whatever pleases it wherever it finds it. And, too, the singer who brought the Scottish Gaelic mouth music, puirt a beul, to international recognition, sort of, back in 1990, was an American, Talitha McKenzie, working with a Scotsman, Martin Swan. Morrison pulls off some nice puirt a beul on Urstan, and there are ballads, love songs, lyrics in Gaelic, lyrics in English, and a lot of the songs, you notice, are like letters, pieces of personal opinion delivered between people; “Hion Dail-a Horo Hì”, for example, a song sung by a woman who wishes her lover would go bird-nesting rather than dig peat because she’d like some eggs please, and she’ll help him out if he goes, and “Fiullaigean”, sung by a man to his sister-in-law, who is about to marry into a neighbouring town. “‘S beag a bha dhùil aig do mhàthair / Gur ann a dh’ Àrnoil chuirt’ thu,” the duo sing, or “Little did your mother think / That you’d be carted off to Arnol,” according to the translation. “E Ho Leigein” was once sung to calm cattle for milking — “E ho my pet, hi ho my heifers” — a reminder that a song, whatever else it is, is a form of technology, not only a noise, but a noise with a purpose, here, a charm, an enchantment, a tool for soothing, as Bach is used today at railway stations, to soothe and calm the rampant youth, or chivvy them off.

Morrison is more of a singer than Roberts, whose voice in “Tri-Coloured House” gropes around at the ends of lines to keep hold of what it has. He’s had more of a solo musical career than his partner, but he can sound thin when he sings alone. There are places where a thin voice can work, where groping at the ends of lines is a sign of earnestness — the singer is so sincere that not even a wavering wander can stand between self and song — the brass in Beirut is not as flash as the work of the Balkan musicians it’s modeled on, but the band is loved regardless — and yet not here, I think, not when he’s teamed up with someone who sings steadily, and with Alastair Caplin’s mindful fiddle. And “Never Wed An Old Man” has the opposite problem, I think – the lines are finished so finely, and the song is so clear and calm, that the spirit of the young narrator gets muffled. When Jeannie Robertson sang the song she did it elegiacally, holding onto the ends of her phrases, an older woman remembering an event of her teens, but you could do it with an immediate voice too, the young woman in person addressing other young women, exasperated by a husband who “lay as he was dead” when “we went to our bed.” Morrison and Roberts aim somewhere in the middle, not immediate, not really elegiac, dealing with the song as a song, not as a story, when more story-punch would have given the thing kick.

This measured approach works out for them on other tracks, however. “The Whole House is Singing” benefits, and Roberts’ voice comes in firmly here, too, showing its plaintive strengths. But how good it would be to hear the strangeness of this idea brought out, oh, here we are, singing our feelings in public, to strangers, and our feelings aren’t wearing our clothes, they’re wearing the clothes of fifty years ago, or a hundred, or three hundred, we come, we find this wardrobe of old garments, coats and hats, we put them on our heads, we slide our arms into the sleeves, and we are ourselves, and we are not.

RATING 6 / 10