Pete Coutts is a well kent musician in the folk world of North East of Scotland and he first came to Blabber’n’Smoke’s attention as one third of Ballad of Crows whose 2015 album we reviewed here. While that album had some roots in American music for his solo debut Coutts sticks firmly to his homeland and traditions, singing in the local tongue, Doric. A northeastern version of the Scots language Doric has an extensive history in literature and song stretching back to the 15th Century (many of the Child Ballads can be traced back to here) and its earthy kailyard utterances fit perfectly into Coutts collection of fine folk songs and tunes.
Singing and playing guitar and mandolin Coutts is assisted by a fine cast of top players from the Scots folk world who add whistles and pipes, fiddle and accordion, bodhran and cittern. The result is a nimble and excellently played series of instrumentals and songs that burst with energy as the players engage with each other as only the best folk musicians can creating a concatenation of strings and things. As with the finest Celtic music Coutts conjures emotions and memories of the land, sea and air along with the folk who dwell within. The instrumentals have a wonderful sense of restrained gaiety as the musicians parry with each other summoning up images garnered from the televised Transatlantic Sessions. Allathumpach opens the album and immediately the listener is transported into a bothy session, a sense heightened by In & Oot. Boink!, despite its title, is somewhat more mannered initially with Coutts’ mandolin and the guitars gently bolstered by the fiddle and whistles before a grand entrance from the pipe ushers in a sense of grandness. The last tune on the album, Strichen Gala/The Road To Aikey Brae, closes the circle as once again one feels as if you are surrounded by a fleet of fine players and the ale is flowing fast.
These instrumentals are scattered throughout the album with Coutts’ songs standing proud amongst them. With occasional seabird sounds interspersed adding to the atmosphere Coutts’ strong voice delivers a powerful set of songs that take in the pride of fishermen returning home with a full catch (Sail & Oar) and the backbreaking work of cutting peat (Castin’ The Peat). Will Ye Byde is a glimmering gem of a song that sounds as ancient as the Caledonian Forest with Coutts accompanied only by a sonorous accordion on a love song which invokes the likes of Rabbie Burns and Lewis Grassic Gibbon with Coutts standing tall beside such keepers of the folk tradition as Martin Carthy. This is reinforced on Belhelvie, a gutsy rendition of a fatal accident involving a traction engine falling into a dyke which is both stirring and emotive. all the more so as it’s apparently based on a true family tale.
The title song is a bit of an anomaly here and presumably something of a tribute to its writer but Coutts handles Nick Drake’s Northern Sky with some aplomb. He sings it wonderfully and the slight Celtic air afforded it remains true to the melancholic feel of the original. It’s probably the best cover of a Drake song we’ve come across. Whatever, it sits well within the album which overall is a blissful winter listen. If you’re looking for some Celtic music to air around this New Year then is thoroughly recommended.
The Railsplitters The Faster It Goes
The Railsplitters are a five-piece string driven crew from Colorado and are yet another band who use traditional instruments but who are bang up to date regarding their song writing. While there’s one traditional song here (Salt, Salt Sea) it’s an ocean away from the gloom of its forebear (The House Carpenter) with a contemporary feel. At times here and elsewhere on the album there’s the impression that we’re listening to musings and notes from singer Lauren Stovell’s diary as she sings about upstart Romeos trying to impress her (You) and a year of romance (Seasons). This is impressive as the majority of the songs are written by the male members of the band, Dusty Rider and Peter Sharpe, both managing well to inhabit the female psyche. Best is Rider’s tale of a young mother clinging to the hope that her husband will return on Met That Day with Stovell at her most plaintive. Currently The Railsplitters are playing their debut UK and Ireland datesand the album is released on July 6th
The Honeycutters. Me Oh My
From Asheville, North Carolina, The Honeycutters are based around the strong vocals and fine song writing of Amanda Platt. The basic line up of mandolin, pedal steel, guitar, Dobro, bass and drums is enhanced in the studio with keyboards, electric guitar and trumpet leading to a warm wallow in some intricate and finely sketched playing. This is immediately apparent on the lengthy and rather glorious All You Ever which blossoms from its tentative opening with a drumbeat underpinning Platt’s wearied vocal into a full blown pedal steel mandolin and keyboard borne country rock affair. Platt dips into country soul territory on what is the antitheses of Stand By Your Man on the powerful title song as she sings “some girls marry and some girls wait, some girls worry ’bout judgement day, some do better without that ball and chain” while Little Bird is a song that could have been penned by Mary Gauthier and is delivered with the same wearied feel that Gauthier does so well. While Platt stands up for downtrodden women elsewhere (Not That Simple) there are some upbeat moments here with the opening Jukebox a fine slice of honky tonk philosophy while Ain’t It The Truth is a punchy slice of Loretta Lynn styled fight back against all of those rotten men. There’s 14 songs here and everyone is a winner with Platt and the band coming across as ones to watch out for.
Ballad Of Crows
Back to the UK (and Germany) for this eponymous album featuring Steve Crawford and Pete Coutts along with Sascha “Salossi” Loss. With a sound that fuses classic west coast harmonies with a traditional Scottish feel there’s a temptation to recall the likes of Gallagher & Lyle all those years ago but BOC are rootsier. Crawford and Coutts handle guitar, mandolin, and vocals with Loss adding additional guitar, vocals, bass, fiddle and Sansula (kalimba). With additional texture from guests on fiddle, accordion, cello and slide guitar the album is a well measured collection of rustic notes that certainly grows on the listener with repeated plays; a sweet late night pleasure that might summon up another duo from the seventies, Crosby & Nash. A cover of Tim O’Brien’s Brother Wind begs the comparison but overall the songs, in the main written by Davy Cattanach along with Crawford and Coutts hark back to halcyon seventies days.