From our now-venerable, but ever thistle-sharp, Scots singer of new songs and old, comes a fifth full-length collection of traditional songs. Reaching down the centuries to unpack these numbers anew, Alasdair finds a set of eternal melodies – and with them, an unsettling number of surreal images that parallel the madness of our modern times.
Critically-acclaimed, criminally-overachieving Glasgow-based singer and guitarist Alasdair Roberts is known as a superlative original songwriter as well as an interpreter of traditional songs from Scotland and beyond. For the past twenty years, his recordings have alternated between these two complimentary poles, with ‘pop’ records such as The Amber Gatherers and A Wonder Working Stone nestling in his expansive back catalogue alongside “folk” albums such as No Earthly Man and What News (with Amble Skuse and David McGuinness). Additionally, all of these records possess a further dimension, derived from their collation of songs together into one album-length statement. This is part of Alasdair’s great achievement in his career — for him, this thing of music and song hasn’t come the eons it’s travelled to simply entertain.
These impulses fully present and well honed, Alasdair returns to his roots with Grief in the Kitchen and Mirth in the Hall, his fifth full-length collection of traditional song. Recorded live in the studio, it is an entirely solo collection of twelve traditional ballads and songs sparsely arranged for acoustic guitar, piano and voice. The majority of the songs originate in Alasdair’s homeland of Scotland, with a couple from Ireland and one from Prince Edward Island on Canada’s eastern seaboard too.
The record takes its title from a line in the final verse of one of its songs, “The Baron o’ Brackley” — a ballad of feuding clans and matrimonial betrayal from the north-east of Scotland. Grief in the Kitchen and Mirth in the Hall: it’s a title which goes some way towards encapsulating many of the record’s themes. Collectively the songs treat of various conflicts and tensions — those of gender; of class, status and position; and of geography and tribal belonging — and the roles and responsibilities expected at the various intersections of these constructs. That we should never forget!
As with many of Alasdair’s recordings, Grief in the Kitchen and Mirth in the Hall contains ballads aplenty: tragic (“Bob Norris”), supernatural (“The Holland Handkerchief”) and dramatic (“Eppie Morrie”). There are love songs (“The Lichtbob’s Lassie”) and anti-love songs (“Kilbogie”). There are rare, seldom-heard pieces (“Young Airly”) and much more well-known ones (“Mary Mild,” a version of “The Queen’s Four Maries”). Woven through all of this — a thread of levity, perhaps — is a triptych of zoological allegories — a panegyric to a mystical steed (“The Wonderful Grey Horse”), a lament for a lost cow (“Drimindown”) and a paean to a regal waterbird (“The Bonny Moorhen”), which serves to highlight the intersection of the mythic, the eternal and the mundane at which we all find ourselves in every day of our life on Earth.
Grief In the Kitchen and Mirth in the Hall was masterfully recorded by Sam Smith at Green Door Studios, Glasgow over an economical two days, and mixed in one day. Its brevity on all levels is an aspect of its expression. Alasdair’s renowned acoustic fingerstyle guitar is understated yet questing, ever in service to the needs of the song, underpinning his soulful tenor voice. Three songs eschew his habitual acoustic guitar in favour of simple piano arrangements. The spare setting and Alasdair’s deeply committed performance gently reminds of the meanings and melodies of these old songs, chosen instinctively and with care, for all to hear and sing in 2023, and the world beyond that is ever coming.