2001 | Pitchfork | Matt LeMay
Back when I was a wee lad, my father used to sing to me the folk songs of England, Scotland, and Ireland. He would pull out the family guitar, a battered, beer-stained acoustic with some serious tuning issues, call the whole family ’round, and celebrate his British heritage with a series of lovely folk ditties. And it scared the living shit out of me.
Granted, parts of the above story are purely atmosphere. The “family” guitar was given to me by a neighbor when I was two, and while it did suffer from tuning issues, it was neither battered nor beer-stained. The “whole family” consisted of myself. And my father’s ancestors did not hail exclusively from the British Isles– some came from the over-hyped wine, cheese, and cowardice factory that is France, while others were Native Americans, whose particularly gruesome folk songs were no match for the English and their smallpox blankets. But it is true that my father used to sing me a lot of British folk songs. And it’s also true that a lot of them used to scare the crap out of my five-year-old self.
Like a good deal of folk music, the songs my father sang me addressed lost love, grieving, and sadness. Unlike other songs I’d heard, however, these topics were almost always intertwined with death. Think Ween’s “Cold Blows the Wind,” except not a joke. Widows followed their husbands’ rotting corpses to their graves. Drowned corpses visited their former lovers in terrifying dreams. At the time, I was creeped out, but in retrospect, there was a quality of epic beauty and sadness to those songs that can be undeniably moving.
The Crook of My Arm sees Appendix Out frontman Alasdair Roberts tackling a dozen folk songs, addressing issues of lost love, found love, unrequited love, and love across class lines. And gardens and traveling and shit. Basically, it’s just Roberts, armed with his croaky, shaky voice and his acoustic guitar, tackling some classic folk songs. As with any album consisting of covers, some songs are quite a bit better than others, but Roberts’ unique voice and laid-back yet oddly intense delivery (and the simple structures of all the songs covered) make The Crook of My Arm a cohesive, if not a bit lugubrious album.
“Lord Gregory” opens the record on a high note– a tune of dead babies, lost love, and betrayal. A mid-tempo number with a gorgeous melody, “Lord Gregory” is simply a nice, enjoyable song. “Lowlands” is perhaps the most lyrically stunning track here, with lines like, “He was green and wet/ With weeds so cold…/ I’ll cut away/ My bonny hair/ For my love lies drowned/ In the windy lowlands.” More so than any other track on the album, “Lowlands” showcases the kind of poignant, tragic imagery that makes so many of these folk songs so great.
The rest of The Crook of My Arm is made up of more of the same– gently delivered folk. It’s easy for an album as uniform as this to blur into a pastel-colored background, which is really a shame, because the aforementioned tracks, as well as a few other standouts, are simply gorgeous. As it stands, though, The Crook of My Arm is too homogenous and ploddingly paced to have any kind of resonating impact. I was hoping that this record would leave me with images of overwhelmingly tragic love and devotion. Instead, I’m left thinking of beds, flowers, and pleasant romance along the countryside of Britain. I guess you can’t have it all.