Alasdair Roberts: Farewell Sorrow

Rob Horning

Alasdair Roberts

Farewell Sorrow

Label: Drag City
US Release Date: 2003-04-22
UK Release Date: 2003-04-28

Upon hearing this quavery-voiced Scottish singer-songwriter with a penchant for inherited melodies and ballad forms, and recognizing that this, his most recent release, has been put out by Drag City, one might find it too easy to dub him the overseas Will Oldham (he shares his formal, humorless delivery and his love of slow tempos) and cast about for ways to obfuscate this obvious conclusion. And since one would expect that Roberts would draw heavily from the conventions established by the English breed of '60s folk-rock pioneers, Pentangle and Fairport Convention (though there is nothing on this record like the stunning guitar playing of Bert Jansch or Richard Thompson, and Roberts is not the male Sandy Denny, despite sharing something of her idiosyncratic delivery), it seems too predictable to point that out. But to try to say something other than this, to try to describe Roberts in some unusual and ingenious way, would, in the end, just be very misleading, especially since it is the very blatancy of these comparisons, and the facility with which he works in well-defined styles, that makes it so easy to absorb his music, and begin enjoying it almost immediately. After all, that is the underlying principle of folk music: that its instantaneous recognizability through the recycling of melodies allows the "folk" to feel as though it belongs to them, as though they could almost join in, as though the music really emerged from themselves and the body of untutored musical knowledge they've effortlessly accrued.

But, one wonders, who is this "folk"? And why do Roberts's well-documented and authentic-sounding evocations of their music (the liner notes indicate his specific borrowings from traditional Ulster and Northumbrian melodies and a Sussex hunting song) seem like anthropological museum pieces? On the one hand, as media technologies work to atomize people and isolate them from the possibility of shared traditions, which require a vigorous community life to sustain, one wonders if his sort of folk music can ever be anything but nostalgic ever again -- at best it wistfully evokes a putatively more authentic time, at worst it becomes a kitschy musical analogue of a Medieval Times (it is one of Farewell Sorrow's supreme achievements that it can feature songs about wenching and carousing, and make lyrical reference to "verdant braes", "a fallow doe", and a "leveret hide" without making you feel you're at a Renaissance festival).

Yet on the other hand, modern society clearly spawns subcultures that rely on music to hold them together: many musical genres reflect youth scenes whose membership depends on familiarity with certain bands and appropriation of those bands' fashion choices. From this perspective, Evanescence is folk music to disaffected teenaged girls, 50 Cent to suburban wannabe badasses, the White Stripes to greasy-haired hipsters, and Alasdair Roberts is not really folk music at all. Instead, he works a very slender niche; he is the equivalent of an author who writes historical literary fiction, reaching a very slight, very marginal audience. And it is probably better that way, for if there were a group of people who consciously constituted the English "folk," there would have to be a pretty fascistic ideology uniting them, and it would then be hard to appreciate Roberts's work without feeling guilty. And there is much to appreciate, no matter how predictable its sound may be to those fluent with his niche. Innovation, after all, is an overrated virtue for music, as novelty frequently equals disposability.

Farewell Sorrow' s distinction lies in how its songs are unified by their shared tropes, with metaphors of music, love, and predation all reflecting upon each other, as in "Join Our Lusty Chorus", sung from the point of view of an affianced poacher. The songs at the heart of the album form an oblique cycle about the singer's love for "Polly". In two different songs she is likened to an instrument, as something he can play, something that can allow him to give expression to something otherwise inchoate and not necessarily benevolent. It's no surprise for singer/songwriters to be ambivalent about love, but Roberts constructs the images so they work in both directions, so that the vagaries of his love are also symbolic of the difficulties of creativity, the pursuit of an elusive truth that is marred by its capture. The return to the idea of the hunt, always from a slightly different perspective, allows listeners to consider the different competing forms desire can take, and the ways in which the strongest desires may take no object at all.

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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