Alistair Hulett, Riches And Rags: Modern Music For Wireless And Gramophone (Red Rattler, 2006)

In his earlier incarnation as lead singer and main songwriter with the punk/folk band Roaring Jack, it's fair to say a lot of the power of Alistair Hulett's music came from the sheer volume and thrashiness of the arrangements as much as the songs themselves. This is by no means a bad thing, as proven by how well that band's recordings stand up today. Since their split in the early 1990s, Hulett's work has been largely acoustic and therefore the songs have had to rely a bit more on their own power, as it were.

His current CD Riches And Rags is a good example of how well this process has worked. Hulett has collected together a number of songs from various sources - original, traditional and some unexpected covers -- which allow their inherent qualities to shine through without a single power chord or scream to be heard. He has also assembled a small cast of musicians whose collective ability to embellish the music without overpowering it, all the time being sympathetic to the material and Hulett's delivery of it, is one of the pleasures of the album.

There are also a few surprising elements, such as the greater proportion of songs being non-political in nature and the addition of a couple of blues / country pieces, such as "Stealin' Back To My Same Old Used To Be," originally recorded in the 1920s by the Memphis Jug Band. Thankfully, Hulett does not affect an American accent for these tracks but stays with his natural Scottish intonation. Even a track with a title like "Militant Red" is set as a love song. Perhaps this can also be seen as an extension of the definition of politics to include the politics of relationships, a thorny issue by itself. This is exemplified by "Shot Down In Flames," a reworked Roaring Jack song that highlights the cut and thrust of harmful human interaction almost too well. On the other hand, the other re-recorded RJ track "Criminal Justice" is a blatant comment on corruption in high places.

The one other original composition is the title track, an easy rolling country-blues love song that Hulett wrote many years ago but has only now recorded for the first time.

At the same time, traditional pieces like "The Recruited Collier" are still apt in a contemporary sense, with the story of a soldier's coercion to join "the cause" then facing the awful consequences. The gorgeous arrangement, especially the fiddle of Nancy Kerr, makes this one of those gentle, melodic songs that still manages to hit the listener between the eyes. Likewise, the oft-recorded "Dark-Eyed Sailor" benefits greatly from its treatment here; Hulett's natural and unforced vocal style combining very nicely with the accordion and backing vocals of Gavin Livingstone and Kerr's violin. Kerr's partner James Fagan also appears on the CD, his bouzouki and mandolin adding impressive textures throughout.

The opening track "Fair Flower Of Northumberland" is another traditional song, and Livingstone's subtle bass and tasteful dobro help make it a very appealing way to start proceedings. Covers include "Old King Coal," a rewrite of the John Barleycorn story by John Kirkpatrick with a memorable and stirring melody, and "The First Girl I Loved" by Robin Williamson. Whether cover, traditional or original, each track finds a comfortable place on the album and forms part of a cohesive and entertaining whole.

The sound quality is very good in terms of warmth and feel -- despite necessary overdubbing, it still manages to exude a live atmosphere thanks to the production of Gavin Livingstone. The cover itself is well designed with song notes and sources, and some tasteful colour photography. Certainly, this is a more mellow sounding CD than might have been expected from Alistair Hulett but it suits him well. In fact if it were up to me, I'd change the subtitle to "Timeless Music For Wireless, Gramophone and iPod."

Find out more about Alistair Hulett and how to order his CDs via his brand new Web site.

[Michael Hunter ]