Saturday, January 06, 2007

True Grit


It's the perfect name for this album., on so many levels.

First off, it's about taking the grit of old, almost forgotten music and burnishing it, turning it into something new and beautiful, like an oyster turning some speck of dirt into a pearl. Then it's the grit which Martyn Bennett must have needed to produce the finished product, seriously ill as he was and apparently unable to play the pipes, only capable of taking other people's work and mixing it with his own visions. Finally, the source material - the collection of Lomaxian field recordings which lie at the heart of the album - are as gritty as it's possible to imagine in these modern shiny days.

It's probably not to everyone's taste, not even those who bought Bennett's previous albums. I have those too, bought on the back of hearing Grit and, Glen Lyon apart, they're not quite the same kind of thing at all. There's some good stuff on there (particularly 'Tongues of Kali' from Bothy Culture, which is a mad whirl of an instrumental track), but they're more musicians' albums than listeners, made to dance to in clubs where techno tracks with no apparent names on white labels are the thing.

There are a couple of similar tracks on Grit, but primarily it inhabits a whole new astonishing world. The most obvious touchstone for anyone considering buying the album is Moby. Swap American spirituals sung by big throaty black women for recitations of the Old Testament by Scots patriarchs and you're in the right area. Which makes it sound a bit serious and religious - and at times it is - but that's not the entire story.

Where something like 'Liberation' (the aforementioned Old Testament track) is stark and black, anchored by the booming voice of some Island Minister intoning the 118th Psalm over a techno beat, and the track 'Chanter' with its repeated refrain 'You play the melody on the chanter' sounds like something from Bothy Culture, the album also contains almost fragile pieces like 'Wedding' and 'Why'.

It's all good, but it's a trio of tracks which raise Grit from the realms of the merely great to that of the utterly magnificent.

In order of appearance, 'Nae Regrets' hits the speakers first. It's an amalgam of two seperate tracks - Edith Piaf's No Regrets' and a Scots-Romany traditional song sung by Annie Watkins. The two songs run into and bounce off one another like punks pogo-ing in the mosh pit to create a final product which, to quote one review, "kicks ass like ass is going out of style".

Next comes 'Ale House' sung by someone famous on the Scottish folk scene, the traveller Jeannie Robertson. The song used as the basis for the track is presumably the 'Ale House' of the title, but whatever its provenance, the voice is powerful and filled with humour, detailing the adventures of a 'bonnie wee lassie who never said no'. In some ways it's a similar trick to that employed in 'Nae Regrets' as the Romany voice unexpectedly finds itself underpinned by the heavy drums of a dance beat, but it's just so incredibly well done and so filled with genuine joy that it doesn't matter in the least.

Finally, 'Storyteller', the track which closes the album, is amongst the oddest mainstream tracks ever to make its way to release. Over ten minutes long and using as its base a poem from 1955 recorded by a tinker, the fact that the poem is called 'The Maiden Without Hands.' tells you most of what you want to know about the wierdness but fails miserably to explain the power of the remastered whole. It's stunning, that's the only word for it.

Martyn Bennett died of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2005 after recording only five albums, Grit being the final album released before his death.

It is the finest album ever to come out of Scotland - in the words of the speaker on 'Liberation', it is "the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes."


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Blogger Ross Douglas said...

Yo Bro,
Give's a copy boyo.

3:15 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

will do

7:09 pm  
Blogger Scott Liddell said...

Boffo - a good one, I liked it.

4:22 pm  

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