In the words of Roddy Woomble from Idlewild; “the idea for this album was to see if these poems, which had their own worlds written into them, could mean something different when interpreted by another voice”. Well let me tell you, this CD is a triumphant justification of that idea.
Various Scottish Artists and Writers - Ballads of the Book
Now here's something to get your teeth into. This CD represents a true collaboration between words and music, no bullshit, no hype, no metropolitan posturing; just artistic endeavour and collaboration. A brief explanation; Scottish bands and musicians (such as James Yorkston, Vashti Bunyan and Idlewild) interpret poems from Scottish literary figures as Ian Rankin, Bill Duncan and the brilliant Louise Welsh through their own music. This is a wholly Scottish enterprise; funded by the Scottish Arts Council; the only noticeable collaboration with the Saxon horde is the use of a recording studios in Yorkshire. In the words of Roddy Woomble from Idlewild; "the idea for this album was to see if these poems, which had their own worlds written into them, could mean something different when interpreted by another voice". Well let me tell you, this CD is a triumphant justification of that idea. A beautifully presented CD with a wonderfully illustrated booklet (reminiscent of Glasgow's old Postcard label funnily enough) and uplifting cover art, is just the icing on a very rich and satisfying cake.
I'm unsure that to describe each song in detail would help; there are eighteen tracks, all of them fabulous. Maybe (if it's okay with all of you) the best thing is to pick out some things that struck me whilst listening. It's heartening to hear how cleverly some of the musicians have approached the poems on offer; Foxface's rowdy interpretation of Rody Gorman's Dreamcatcher and Lord Cut-Glass's take on Alastair Gray's Sentimental Song are noticeable for their attempts to capture the poems' atmosphere through sensitive arrangements and instrumentation. It's as if there is an acceptance that in this project, approaching and interpreting a song's lyrics in a purely intellectual manner is no bad thing.
Elsewhere you get the feeling that some of these poets could be gainfully employed as the artist's lyricists... James Yorkston and Bill Duncan should do a whole LP together, so well do their styles dovetail on A Calvinist Narrowly Avoids Pleasure. The same could be said for Ian Rankin and Aidan Moffat when they combine forces on The Sixth Stone (a brilliant tribute to Stones keyboardist and forgotten man Ian Stewart).
The other notable thing is how sentimental a lot of these poems are. Its all about love and loss; save for Dreamcatcher, The Sixth Stone and Alan Bissett's The Rebel on His Own Tonight (a fab interpretation by Malcolm Middleton) there's nary a mention of Scotland as an entity, maybe a hint of Scottish social commentary in Strike the Colour's take on Rody Gorman's Message in a Bottle, or Emma Pollock's interpretation of Louise Welsh's Jesus on the Cross, but these are mere hints. No, it's all about love, (witness Norman Blake's version of John Burnside's Girl) and I find that great, as there's no real national posturing or pity-me guilt reflexes on show. As such the cover's exhortation to "Sing as if you live in the early days of a better nation" rings true. The odd bit of grit in all of this lovey-dovey-ness is supplied by Sons and Daughters, with their scathing run through of The War on Love Song by A.L Kennedy and De Rosa's version of Michel Faber's Steam Comes off our House.
There's not really a lot more I can write about this LP without descending into fawning mush. Suffice to say, speaking as an Englishman, I wish someone would have the creative guts to do similar, and do it in a way that avoids all bullshit and posturing as Ballads of the Book has done south of the border; though sadly I doubt it.
Words: Richard Foster