...this lovely disc (with a little help from his new mates) reaffirms Williamson's...
Peter Marsh 2002-11-20
Over the course of a few albums in the mid 1960s, the Incredible String Band pushed British folk music into strange new shapes. Their wayward, ramshackle songs mixed slightly lysergic narratives and philosophical musings with exotic instrumentation which was (to most people anyway) an acquired taste. To some they represented hippy self indulgence at its worst; to others their work was deeply revolutionary, connecting with (and expanding on) a tradition of English/Celtic song and storytelling.
So maybe it's no surprise that for his second album for ECM, ISB co-founder Robin Williamson has chosen to set poetry by William Blake, Walt Whitman and Henry Vaughan to music. Blake's long been an alternative folk hero for all sorts of reasons and has attracted settings from musicians as diverse as Mike Westbrook, Jah Wobble and, er, E.L.P. Both Vaughan (a contemporary of Milton) and American poet Whitman share many of Blake's concerns; religious faith shot through with self doubt, fascination with the extremes of the human condition and a love of nature. Williamson's own lyrics sit well in this company, particularly on "The Map With No North", a surreal essay on 'the spaces between words'.
Skirting The River Road (in typical ECM style) places Williamson's voice, harp, guitar and whistles with collaborators drawn from jazz, improvisation and folk; saxophonist Paul Dunmall, multi instrumentalist Ale Moller, violinist Mat Maneri and bassist Mick Hutton. Together they provide lithe, detailed readings of Williamson's music, improvising sensitively throughout; from the opening atmospherics of "The Morning Watch" it's clear there's a common ground here that's not based on mere compromise. It's not folk-jazz or jazz-folk, but an ungraspable hybrid that echoes the ISB's mix of tradition and experiment. Only on the 14 minute "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" do they court failure; despite Dunmall's lush, breathy tenor playing (he's on typically superb form), the smoky walking bass and distant vibes sit uneasily with Williamson's reading of Whitman. Even on the more conventional settings like "West from California's Shores", little touches (in this case Maneri's slurred, Indian tinged viola) keep the music fresh and vigorous.
Williamson's voice is more lived in (and much more tinged with Scots brogue than of old). His wavering, wandering singing is often highly effective and moving (particularly on "Here to Burn" and the "Journey"). Though the recent ISB reunion caught a lot of critical flak, this lovely disc (with a little help from his new mates) reaffirms Williamson's unique, individual talents.