Archie Fisher,
Windward Away
(Red House, 2008)

In some sentimental place in my mind, I imagine the nation of Scotland has a voice. That voice sounds a whole lot like Archie Fisher's, a burry baritone that seems to rise up out of that North Atlantic landscape as naturally as the wind. In dull truth, though, in common with so many on both sides of the ocean, my initial exposure to the Scots tradition was through Fisher, whose debut album dates back to the mid-1960s. He is a product of the same Edinburgh folk scene that nurtured two other enduring masters, Robin Williamson and Bert Jansch, themselves still recording and creating music that amply rewards any who care to listen.

Windward Away, Fisher's first CD in 13 years (the last was Sunsets I've Galloped Into, also on Red House), comprises at least an album and a half's worth of music. The first 11 cuts were recorded relatively recently. But "THE MISSING MASTER" -- cuts 12 to 19 -- comes from sessions in the late 1970s or 1980; Fisher's notes are vague on the precise year. They were intended for an album on Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem's Blackbird label, but for unspecified reasons, that album was never issued. The master vanished, only to be recovered through accidental circumstance some 27 years later.

Even the casual listener will notice that the two sets of songs have their own distinct identities. The new material is minimally arranged, just Fisher's guitar and mandolin and David Paton's electric fretless five-string bass. These songs are set, with no exceptions, to atmospheric, mid-tempo ballad melodies. All but two (Graham Miles's "Shepherd on the Hill" and the quasi-traditional "Surge of the Sea") are Fisher originals, the bulk of them personal meditations that celebrate simple pleasures, call up memories and mourn the passing of years and loved ones. My favorite, the death-haunted "Bonnie Border Lass," borrows a familiar traditional melody.

As always with Fisher, even the songs expressing contemporary sensibilities feel linked to another time. Maybe it's that voice, which still gives the impression of rolling through a dawn or twilight mist.

The kinds of folk-baroque arrangements one used to hear in British revival records give the older songs their particular flavor. Those arrangements, if mildly dated in some respects, yet manage to convey pleasure and stir emotion. Of the eight, only three are self-penned. One is his much-loved "Final Trawl," which could pass easily for either authentic chantey or Cyril Tawney. There are stellar readings of a couple of traditionals, "Star of Belle Isle" and "Cuillins of Home" (the latter of which appears in another, starker form on Sunsets).

If you're a Fisher fan, Windward Away provides a warm reminder of what you've always liked. If you haven't heard him, you will be drawn, I hope, to his unaffected, understated, deceptively effortless approach. Fisher may be a major figure in the folk revival of the last half century, but he didn't get there by shouting.

review by
Jerome Clark

12 July 2008

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