Old Blind Dogs, FIT? (Green Linnet, 2001)
It's no secret that Green Man get lots of product for review, and the mail carrier today brought a dozen CDs from Green Man for me perusal. But only one item grabbed me immediate attention: the just released Old Blind Dogs album, FIT?, which is the second album from the line up that produced the world's room. The present line-up consists of Scottish singer and songwriter in Jim Malcolm, as well as Deaf Shepherd veteran Rory Campbell (Border pipes and whistles). Also, percussionist number three joins the Old Blind Dogs, as Graham 'Mop' Youngson departs for other pastures, and Paul Jennings arrives (one wonders how often percussionists turn over in Celtic bands). Jonny Hardie on fiddle, and Buzzby McMillian on cittern and bass are still with the group -- nigh unto a decade after the band first formed! FIT? shows the lads to be in fine form -- not a terrible surprise as this group showed a remarkable level of consistency on their first seven albums. Nevertheless, this is not as good an album as the world's room.
First, some background on this group for those of you who haven't encountered them yet. As our Editor noted in his omnibus review of their previous releases, the Old Blind Dogs are "...one of the new wave of Scottish groups that have combined traditional material with an unconventional style of playing. I promoted them years ago when they visited our fair city, when the Old Blind Dogs consisted of Davy Cattanach on percussion, Jonny Hardie on fiddle, Buzzby McMillian on cittern and bass, and Ian Benzie doing vocals and playing guitar. This was not actually the original group -- the first OBD had Dave Francis on percussion and Carmen Higgins on fiddle (there are no known recordings of this incarnation of OBD). But, with the "classic" line-up of Cattanach, Hardie, McMillian, and Benzie, which began in 1992, OBD toured as a four piece and recorded four great CDs with the Scottish record label, KRL -- New Tricks, Close to the Bone, Tall Tails, and Legacy. Live they are simply superb -- recorded they sound just as good. This is not thrash Celtic, as is the case of groups like MacKeel, and Seven Nations, but rather a more subtle approach that allows both the vocals and other instruments to be clearly heard. Their sound is very unique -- no other group sounds quite like them. In contrast to groups such as Iron Horse, Pogues, and MacKeel which all combine traditional material with aggressively loud percussion and a lot of piping, the OBD, who only recently started to use pipers on their CDs, apply a lighter touch to the music, which allows them to bring out the heart and soul of the traditional material."
Ok, so what bothers me about this album is that it feels less cohesive, more self-indulgent than the world's room. While it has great tunes, e.g. the Much Better Now set comprised of "Much Better Now/Bear Dance/Alex MacDonald/An Gun's T-Apron" is a brilliantly executed whirling dervish of Border pipes, fiddles, multiple guitars, and the usual hand percussion that Davy Cattanach first introduced to the group in the first recorded version of the group, and now superbly handled by Paul Jennings. And the Robert Burns penned poem, "Is There for Honest Poverty," is a rousing Leftist plea for the rights of the common man set against the French Revolution. But there are cuts that are maudlin enough to make my teeth hurt, e.g. "Reres Hill" sounds like some of the worst Singer-Songwriter material that we get far too much of! Indeed it sounds like the Battlefield Band at their very worst. And the final cut of a song called "Tatties and Herrings" is a minor bit of fluff about labourers living on potatoes and fish 'cause their wages are thinner than ice in March. Come on now -- surely they could've found a song 'bout the plight of the labouring class that had more of a bite to it! If you want social commentary with a bite, go listen "Boxing Day" on the Band of Hope's album, 'Rhythm and Reds', which has 'nough anger it to make the Ruling Class shite its hunting pants. Methinks that the Old Blind Dogs are not quite as Leftist as they would like us to think they are according to the liner notes!
And I can't me finger on it, but this album seems to have lower energy than the world's room -- less up tempo, not as edgy as that album. It may simply be that I'm a tad disappointed that they didn't try a bit harder to stretch their reach a bit. The bottom line is that I find meself vaguely unhappy with this album -- it's quite good, better than almost everything out there, but not as good as it could.
Bleedin' Hell, go buy it as you'll no doubt like it. I just expected a bit more from the lads. (A note from me wife Brigid -- She says some of the material here reminds her of Kirk McLeod of Seven Nations at his worst. And she generally loves the Dogs!) Not that I'm giving up on the Dogs, but I do hope their next CD shows a bit more of the piss and vinegar that the world's room and five showed as a mellow Dogs is not a good things. Come on, lads, you can do better!
In a weird sense, the title of this album, FIT?, which is 'What? in the Doric, the dialect of north east Scotland, is fitting as that was my feeling too, though I'd say "Bloody Hell, get off your arses next time!"
Now I'm off to listen to 'Rhythm and Reds', as I need something with a bit more bite to it