Malcolm MacWatt – Settler: Album Review

Like bringing the coals back to Newcastle, MacWatt rediscovers the Scottish tradition through an Appalachian translation.

Release date: 26th November 2021

Label: Need To Know Music

Format: CD / Digital

It’s been quite a year or so for Scottish musicians embracing the music of the Americas and playing it back to them with style and finesse, thinking, principally, of Dean Owens, who has seamlessly introduced his Leith born characterisations into the tex-mex of Calexico and come out on top. Add now the name of Malcolm MacWatt, who takes things both a step forward and back. Given the accepted wisdom that much of the country and bluegrass tradition has roots back in these islands, carried there by emigrants and escapees, MacWatt fast tracks this idea, his songs, rooted in a Scottish tradition, effortlessly and expertly performed in the full feel of the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountain territories. Largely performing and singing all of songs himself, with the only assistance courtesy the bass guitar of Phil Dearing and some stellar guests on additional vocals, it is counter-intuitive to appreciate he put this all together in his London home studio, it sounding so resolutely authentic.

With only an EP behind him, Skail, last year, a tentative exploration of similar territory, this release builds on this and some, turning out to be one of the more beguiling records of the year. “When people are uprooted sometimes all they can carry with them are their stories and experiences“, he says, and these songs are all little stories, self-contained and complete, carrying a whiff of the past into their present, sepia tints with a digital focus.

Avalanche and Landslide immediately sets the tone, with a mandolin lead over a strummed guitar, banjo slotting in behind, MacWatt having a high and pure tenor, as he outlines a classic tale of how the small cogs get always overlooked in any big picture, at least until. “One small rock rolling sliding downhill” but “together we’re an avalanche“. Enrolling the big voice of US newcomer Jaimee Harris on the chorus harmony vocals was a good move, signposting as many listeners toward her own (recommended) work, without taking any the gloss away from MacWatt’s own performance. A blistering start. A classic road to rags song follows, in Letter To San Francisco, and the flavour I am picking up is a vibe of Robert Earl Keen, if with a different vocal timbre; this and many of the songs could sit alongside any on his classic West Textures.

The next song, Ghosts of Caledonia, references the experience of the expatriate Scot, actually worldwide, as place names hark continually back to the past and the old country. A thoughtful lyric reminds any such individual will become “Ghosts of Caledonia too”. Ditching the philosophical musings for a moment comes the slighter The Curse of Molly McPhee, the sort of song you might expect to hear around the campfire in a black and white western. The presence of Laura Cantrell gives a touch of credibility that lifts it above the relatively trite lyric. Another guest, Gretchen Peters, all of which suggests MacWatt knows where a lot of bodies are buried, then adds no small amount of pathos to the poignant My Bonny Boys Have Gone, the highlight thus far, a song that begs for some high profile cover version. As she takes lead for a verse, it is simply stunning.

The Miller’s Daughter near steers into overly predictable territory, the title telling you possibly as much as you need to know, but, again, it is the harmony vocal that raises it above the potential of cliche. This time it is Eliza Carthy, she showing she is as dab a hand in this sort of material as her more usual territories. Indeed, I’d go further and give the back handed compliment that I didn’t believe it were she. The musical arrangements remain a constant presentation a high grade and very competent string band, unobtrusively superb, catching you out as you swap your attention from the vocals to the backing. As earlier on the record, the relative levity is then balanced by the more serious Trespass, just MacWatt and his guitar lambasting, in his own words, how “the powerful elite have stolen the common land that used to be for the benefit of all”. With a neat sideswipe to the virtues of poaching.

John Rae’s Welcome Home echoes the epic songs that Brian McNeill can write so well, and could come from the ex-Battlefield Band mans repertoire. Final famous friend, Kris Drever, is here to add his vocals and electric guitar, an evocative and more overtly Celtic song. Or should I say Orcadian. A lovely song which, are you getting the pattern, is followed by the lighter weight whimsy of Banjo Lullaby, which, perhaps also like Robert Earl Keen, suggests some uncertainty as to where his directions best lie. I know my preference, so the closer, North Atlantic Summer, I am pleased to report, falls very much into the starker material, a sombre song comparing the rigours of the North Atlantic, irrespective of from which side you approach it. A satisfying end to a promising first full length release. (There is also a finale of spoken word synopsis of all the songs, explaining each in turn. It is unusual but not unpleasant, he having form for this, Skail having had an equivalent closer. It allows MacWatt to give brief cameo appearances to each of his instruments; guitar, mandolin, banjo, dobro and fiddle, even a bit of bodhran.)

Much as I have found this enjoyable, I wonder how this material may fare in a solo setting, minus the multi-instrumentation and array of backing vocalists. I suggest, by and large, the material is strong enough to sustain it, but a small sympathetic band may add some lustre to such a setting. I look forward to what happens next. In the meantime, this is well worth repeated fireside listens, over a dram or two. I’d suggest a bourbon barrel aged malt, to gain the similar blend and union of traditions.

Here’s the opening track, with Jaimee Harris:

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