Oh dear. Eddi Reader is in danger of becoming a national treasure. With appearances on Question Time and the Terry Wogan radio show and her album of Robert Burns’ songs the favoured selection of a good percentage of Scots each January she’s matured into becoming one of the pillars of Scottish music and in the meantime picking up an MBE. Vagabond follows a four year gap since her last album and again it’s recorded in Glasgow with some top class local musicians including John McCusker, Donald Shaw, Phil Cunningham and her partner, John Douglas. As always her long time collaborator Boo Hewerdine is present. There’s no doubt that this is a classy recording, its warm, at times wonderful, some of the playing is heaven sent but at heart it seems confused as Reader attempts to gather her life, her influences, her family together. Perhaps that’s apt as life is confusing and we get hi- jacked by unexpected circumstances, who among us have followed whatever plan we had when we were young? So Reader sings of her grandmother’s fireside tales of old Ireland, her great uncle’s musical heritage, her own youthful busking in Paris and pays tribute to Amy Winehouse and Michael Marra but uses contrasting styles throughout the album with varying degrees of success.
Sadly it’s her own self penned songs that are most problematic as they tend to slide into MOR territory with the primary culprit being the would be festive song Here Come The Bells but her song about her grandmother, Back The Dogs (Dancing Down Rock) suffers from an intrusive string section while Edinah is a schmaltzy affair. Her French adventures are delivered La Variete style, lightweight but accordion heavy.
At the heart of the album however Reader stuns with a selection of songs, traditional and covers, which embrace Scots tradition. Sung in English, Scots and Gaelic and with the musicians cleaving to a more traditional sound Reader’s impeccable voice captivates. Married To The Sea by Declan O’Rourke is given a dreamlike swoon with burbling vocals and an atmospheric background that flows and ebbs with throbbing guitar and melancholic accordion. Listening to this one is reminded of the breakthrough Fairport Convention song, A Sailor’s Life. Macushla (My Darling) is a heartfelt tribute to the late Michael Marra and recalls the early adventures of Richard and Linda Thompson. Buain Na Rainich (Fairy Love Song) was rescued from Reader’s uncle’s collection of musical manuscripts and it sounds wonderful here as Karen Matheson joins in on harmonies while the traditional setting weeps and aches. In Ma Ain Country follows and while Reader relates it to another memory of visiting France it harks back to Scotland and fulfils the tradition of the exile yearning for his homeland. Delivered in a Scots vernacular and with John McCusker’s whistle and Donald Shaw’s harmonium setting the scene this is another fabulous delivery.
So a bit of a mixed bag. Reader sings excellently throughout but the album lacks cohesion with the traditional bag totally outshining her contemporary writings. These might pass muster on daytime radio but it would be a shame if Reader followed that path as she has the opportunity to become a real national treasure by excavating more of the heritage and sprinkling it with her own vocal fairy dust.