The long musical journey of Scottish singer and songwriter Alasdair Roberts began in earnest with his group Appendix Out, which emerged in the mid '90s as something like Scotland's answer to Will Oldham's Palace Music, twisting folk influences into strange and intriguing new shapes. But by the time Roberts began cutting solo albums in the early 2000s, he had become somewhat obsessed with the traditional folk music of his homeland, and though he was and is a fine songwriter, he devoted a number of albums to his interpretations of trad folk tunes, breathing new life into the bardic tradition as he went along. In partnership with fellow Scot Mairi Morrison, though, Roberts takes his folk fascination to a new level on Urstan.
The album finds Morrison and Roberts sharing vocal duties and tackling mostly traditional Scottish songs, contributing one original tune apiece. But while Roberts' versions of old-school folk tunes on his previous albums have sometimes tended toward the deconstructive, Urstan takes a bit of a different approach. With a cast of accomplices that includes members of the Trembling Bells and other Glasgow acts, Morrison and Roberts expand the songs as they see fit, tossing everything from trumpet and trombone to piano and pipes into the arrangments. What Urstan ultimately achieves might technically be termed a kind of folk rock, but not in the codified sense. The closest American equivalent might be what Bruce Springsteen did in 2006 with his Pete Seeger tribute album, We Shall Overcome, where he freely painted over Seeger's conventionally styled folk songs in a wild riot of colors, not that the two albums sound anything alike.
For those who want to take the sort of scholarly approach that's obviously close to Roberts' own heart, the album notes go to great pains to give the background of each song, creating an extra layer of context. But these tunes can easily be taken on their own terms as well -- the lilt of the melodies, the consistent surprises of the production, and of course the poetry of the lyrics are all more than enough in and of themselves to keep listeners fully engaged. And while those who follow Roberts' career closely might cavil at having him share the spotlight, Morrison seems to be a collaborator who's perfectly suited for this kind of outing, and her style turns out to be an effective complement to his own.