Proof again that Smith is one of Scotland’s great young traditional singers.
Robin Denselow 2010-02-03
Last year was the 250th anniversary of the birth of Scotland’s best-loved poet, Robert Burns, and this fresh and upbeat album is a welcome contribution to the continuing celebrations.
It’s impressive both because Emily Smith’s powerfully straightforward, no-nonsense but emotional approach very much echoes the style of the great man himself, and because her instrumental work, and that of the versatile Jamie McClennan, provides an entertainingly contemporary setting for Burns’ memorable lyrics.
It was only to be expected that Smith would record an album devoted entirely to Burns. A major force on the Scottish folk scene for some time, she was born and raised in Dumfries, not far from where Burns died. 2008’s Too Long Away included a cool, confident treatment of Burns’ As I Was Wand’Ring, and it seemed then that more such experiments were to follow.
Smith and McClennan had originally intended to concentrate only on songs that Burns wrote in, or about Dumfriesshire, but they ended up with a broader selection. Lesser-known pieces sit beside traditional songs that he collected or adapted, and a new setting for one of his best-loved and most political songs, A Man’s a Man For a’ That, is included. Many arrangements make use of traditional melodies, though Lassie Lie Near Me is now treated as a gentle lullaby, with a new melody written by Smith.
Burns was a complex and a controversial figure, and the songs here concentrate on two sides of his character and writing. He was a womanizer, but a champion of the rights of women, and the writer of ardent and passionate love songs in which he dared to lay bare his feelings. So in the cheerfully upbeat title track he praises the beauty of Phillis McMurdo, while Gowden Locks O Anna (“the best love song I ever composed in my life,” said Burns) was written for a Dumfries barmaid with whom he fathered a child. Then there are songs from the woman’s point of view, from the cheerful The Plooman to the racier story of Soldier Laddie, and in contrast to all of these there are equally emotional stories of war, parting and return.
This is an album that proves, again, that Smith ranks alongside Julie Fowlis as one of Scotland’s great young traditional singers. She’s a great instrumentalist, too, playing accordion and piano alongside McClennan’s guitar, fiddle, whistle and mandolin. One suspects that Burns would have been impressed.