Robin Laing,
The Angels' Share
(Greentrax, 1997)

"Take our homes, take our jobs, take anything else you will.
Take family and friends, but leave us our glens."

At first glance, the lines above might sound like the words of a man deeply in love with his country, someone for whom the love and comfort of those closest to him pales beside his passion for the landscape around him.

Not on your life. These glens -- Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Glen Spey, Glenmorangie, Glen Isla and many more -- are all labels of fine Scottish whisky. These glens, according to singer Robin Laing, are the top priority of any good Scot. And it's certainly true that a great deal of Scottish and Irish folk music has been inspired by a wee drop of Uisige Beatha. Laing pays homage to the true spirit of the Celts with an album devoted solely to its humours, tricks and traispings. The Angels' Share, produced in 1997 by Greentrax Recordings, is a lush toast in its honor.

Laing explains in his liner notes that the angels' share of whisky is the portion which evaporates during maturation in the traditional wooden casks. And indeed, could it be that very portion which inspires the heavenly hosts to song? It's certainly caused more than its share of singing in Scotland, where Laing recorded his tribute with a quintet of fine, but subtle session players.

The album is no wild pub session with foot-stomping licks and hoarse, raucous singing. Rather, it's no-frills balladeering, with simple but effective instrumentals supporting Laing's whisky-smooth vocals. His voice and his acoustic guitar provide the basic framework of the album. Providing background are five musicians led by the fine fiddling of John Martin. It's a casual blend, sounding much like a group of old friends gathered together for an evening of laid back frolics.

The album includes well-known chestnuts like "John Barleycorn" and the Scottish morality play, "The Parish o' Drunkeld." The Scottish Bard, Robert Burns, contributes the words to several tunes, including "Willie Brew'd a Peck o' Maut" and "The Deil's Awa' wi' th' Exciseman," and contemporary humorist Shel Silverstein chimes in with lyrics for the anti-feminist "Whisky and Women." Another favourite is the a capella "Tall Tale," about a man whose wife has bullied him into pouring out his 10 treasured bottles of clear gold. It's a crying shame and thirsty work, so who can blame him if he steals a tiny taste from each as he stands over the tub? And is it his fault the drain was blocked?

The album is brewed with a fine share of whimsy, and perhaps the best way to enjoy it is to follow Laing's own example: "I held the room with one hand and I knocked the bugger back."

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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