Transatlantic Connections is of course the title of a series of successful TV shows and an ensuing (and usually sold out) live gig franchise. It might be a fear of being sued which prevented Malcolm MacWatt from giving this title to his excellent debut album but it would have been most appropriate. MacWatt, a Scots musician from Morayshire, has crafted a set of songs which relate to the Scottish diaspora, those who settled in the new world and elsewhere, usually leaving everything behind but their culture. In the end, MacWatt settled on Settler as the title and we’ll just have to settle with that, given that it is also quite appropriate.
While MacWatt’s songs have Celtic blood and a healthy dose of Appalachia coursing through their veins, he opens up the connections by having Jaimee Harris, Gretchen Peters and Laura Cantrell join him on the venture and Eliza Carthy adds a fine dose of English earthiness. These four song sirens might be considered the icing on the cake but all of the songs here stand tall on their own merit. On the strength of them MacWatt deserves to be considered alongside Jackie Leven, Ross Wilson of Blue Rose Code and even Dick Gaughan.
While several songs do address relocation and emigration, many are engaged with the perils and tribulations our settlers faced and there are also occasions when MacWatt nods to contemporary issues. Trespass begins as a diatribe against land ownership depriving local folk of access to their traditional country ways and ends with a dour description of run down town centres, local shops shut while the supermarket is a magnet. The opening song, Avalanche And Landslide is another contemporary number and, while it’s an attractive listen, one can’t help wonder why it’s placed first and foremost. With a jaunty beat and snakelike slide guitar it’s the most American sounding song here and it seems essentially to be a protest song and somewhat out of kilter with what is yet to come. It sounds great and Jaimee Harris adds some excellent gospel inspired vocals but we can’t help but think that this might have been a song to close on rather than open with.
No such quibbles regarding Letter From San Francisco which is a rousing tale of a hardscrabbled sailor’s life stranded in San Francisco, his money gone, his only comforts prostitutes and opium, his words a last testament of sorts, destined to be sent to his mother once he’s dead. This is ten times better than any old sea shanty which might be getting pushed your way these days. Ghosts Of Caledonia is where MacWatt starts to emulate some of those mentioned above. It’s a sinewy and twisting folk rock song, misty and evocative with some brilliant lyrics – “All you ghosts of Caledonia before Columba came/To put you pagan Picts and Celts and witches to the flame.”
We drift somewhere amidst the Appalachians and ye olde England for The Curse Of Molly McPhee which has Laura Cantrell joining in on a song which ticks all of the boxes to be considered a child of The Child Ballads. It’s a deliciously dark tale of love, lust and witchcraft, ending with an execution. It has the cut and thrust and sheer brio that inspired Fairport Convention’s Matty Groves and it’s really quite astonishing to realise that MacWatt wrote this song. Gretchen Peters is next up, joining MacWatt on another powerful song, a valediction for those settlers who sailed from Scotland’s shores on My Bonny Boys Have Gone. If a song could weep tears, this one would and Peters closes the song with a perfect balance of sentimentality and regret. Somewhat astonishingly, MacWatt goes one better on The Miller’s Daughter which is a gnarled and windblown blast of rural lust which comes across like a Thomas Hardy novel. Eliza Carthy is the vocal foil here and she is indeed, earthy and compelling.
While the album reaches its apogee on this delightful vocal collaborative trilogy, there’s a fine historical bent to the tale of John Rae’s Welcome Home which is the true tale of an Orkney born Arctic explorer, celebrated in Canada but vilified in his time by the establishment. With Kris Drever providing subtle guitar, it’s another example of MacWatt invoking a folk strain and bringing it bang up to date. The album closes with MacWatt’s impressionistic evocation of his homeland coast on North Atlantic Summer, a return of sorts to the spirit of Ghosts Of Caledonia and suffused with the spirit, the history and geography of our highlands and islands and those brave emigrants. A sorry tale which continues to this day as beleaguered folk still take to the waters to escape ruin.