No Earthly Man
(Drag City Records)
I had a friend from junior high school that I ran into years later, after he had apparently turned Faux Celtic. This guy had identity issues anyway, being adopted and somewhat obsessed with it, he was an ardent escapist looking for that outside himself. And instead of turning him into a drug addict like any self-respecting escapist does, he instead became a Dungeons and Dragons fanatic. And I mean real-deal "Mazes and Monsters" fanatic, like he had the swords and axes (he has the added attribute of being the most accident prone guy on the planet, once slicing his wrist to the bone with an axe. In fact, when I saw him again after so many years, he was sporting one of those neck stabilizer contraptions while playing darts at a bar.) His sense of complete immersion made him the best dungeon master ever, coming up with countless ways to mask the non role-play aspects of the game from you and leave you to act out your secret elven life. Later in years, he followed the logical conclusion to become an archeologist, a real life clumsy Indiana Jones. The less logical aspect was the convincing but totally bullshit Irish accent he adopted, and his mish-mash of Faux Celitc culture in which he was absorbed.
Now I know there are worlds apart in the equally rich Irish and Scottish cultures, but I speak of it coming from the perspective of experiencing it through my friend and many like them, who views other regions of the world as monochromatic shapes on a map, and as mythological non-existent places not yet overrun with Taco Bell franchises and lackluster "irish pubs". And this experience of Faux Celts often includes some terrible twinkly music, languishing in the World Music section, endless variations on a theme of Danny Boy awash in chorus effects thanks to the plague that was Clannad. So, thankfully, Alasdair Roberts, indie darling of the excellent Appendix Out, sharer of many a split single with the likes of Will Oldham and Songs:Ohia's Jason Molina, has taken upon himself to recontextualize real live old Scottish balladry into his subtle and majestic brand of folk-rock on No Earthly Man.
Opening with "Lord Ronald" the feel of this thing is set into motion with its still hum bolstering up his strong accented voice intoning about "having eels boiled in broth." It gives way to the tinkling dulcimer tones on "Molly Brown" given texture by encroaching cymbals and strings. The stately "The Cruel Mother" brings to mind some of Will Oldham's instrumental works, leading me to wonder if Roberts, a frequent collaborator, is not partially responsible for them. Regardless, it's a great song, and this is a record of great songs, refit into a structure that has both reverence to what they are, and an icing of spookiness that I love on my new folk cake. "The Two Brothers" has what comes off as skill saws slicing through the moodiness of the song and the sentimental "Sweet William" with its guitars and violins prove to be the two highlights on the album. Is this authentic Scottish music? Who's to say? Culture is a horny and fecund animal, it mates with who it wants and bears many a litter without concern for their pedigree, and whether you secretly have 20-side-dice tucked away in your messenger bag, or you still have that necklace with a silver eagle claw clutching a crystal ball you bought from that cute guy/gal at the Renaissance Festival, or not, this album is a sweet, intelligent, cozy armchair excursion to a faraway place, wherever it may be.