Scottish folk quartet Westward the Light claims that their music is “simply arranged, expertly played traditional tunes and songs.” My British friends would agree: it is what it says on the tin. They serve us up a long debut album (ten songs plus a bonus track) of instrumental goodness. Dueling fiddles (played by Charlie Grey and Sally Simpson) roam over the locked-in rhythm section of Owen Sinclair (guitar) and Joseph Peach (piano).
I’m no expert in Scottish folk music--in fact, Westward the Light is my introduction to it--but you don’t need to have any musical expertise to hear that this band flat-out cooks. Peach’s piano and Sinclair’s guitar mesh beautifully throughout the record. Sometimes they’re driving, sometimes they’re gently supporting, but they’re always just right. Grey’s and Simpson’s fiddles weave in and out, typically handling the melodies over the top of the smoldering rhythm figures. The band passes the leads back and forth over the course of the disc, achieving some textural variation without changing instrumentation.
The record sounds as if the band set up a few microphones in a room, hit the go button and just let it rip. The tracks breathe with human life: you can hear the action of the piano dampers and the sheet music turning in the quieter sections. It’s almost as if they’re in your living room--or you’re in their pub.
Westward the Light gives us plenty of uptempo, stomp-along tunes, including “Dolina,” “Coffee Break” and “Making Butter.” “Dolina” offers Peach’s crashing piano chords, set against Sinclair’s brilliant rhythmic guitar work. “Making Butter”, driven by staccato piano work, shows off some nice interplay between the fiddle and the piano; at the end, churning fiddles offer a nice counterpoint to a mellow piano solo.
“Westport Chorus” is my pick of the uptempo numbers. It starts as a quieter, piano-and-fiddle track, and, just when you think it’s over, it builds into a rowdy stomp with some tight ensemble playing. They incorporate some modern touches into the arrangement: many of Peach’s piano figures would fit on Exile on Main Street, and he even works in a little bit of fun boogie piano.
The band can handle the slower stuff too. “Retreat Match” is a wistful ballad with the theme reprised as a piano solo. I particularly liked “Noughts and Crosses” (that’s Tic-Tac-Toe for us Yanks), with its beautiful, richly layered strings that play against the dark, blues-tinged piano and guitar parts.
Really, you won’t go wrong with any of the tracks on Westward the Light. I’ve spent a mere twelve hours of my life in Scotland; thanks to this album, I can’t wait to go back and soak up the music there.
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