Malcolm MacWatt - Dark Harvest

Need To Know Music

****1/2

If there is such a genre as Scots-Americana, this second album by Morayshire-raised Malcolm MacWatt belongs at the heart of it. He is one of the finest interpreters of contemporary Caledonia folk song and an inspiring and vital force in the modernisation of Scotland’s traditional music scene. An excellent release it is too: self-composed and arranged, it demonstrates Malcolm’s fine talent as a composer and multi-instrumentalist, but it’s his vocals and engrossing storytelling that are the real attraction here. It is a deep album first and foremost, like some 21st century Alan Lomax or Cecil Sharp field recording, capturing his tales that address society’s evils and today’s all-consuming inequality that mars modern life. As the title suggests, this is a somewhat sombre set of songs, as he wraps the history-laced lyrics of murder, oppression, injustice and persecution into folksy atmospheric soundscapes and beautiful, floating melodic ballads with a sensitive and delicate touch.

His melodies might be mellow, but his messages are strong and compelling. The Church And The Crown utilises the Peasants Revolt of 1381 to paint a bleak picture of how the privileged and noble have spent centuries keeping ordinary folks in their place. During gloomy times, it’s important to remember both the beauty of nature and the power of an individual’s creative spirit.  Malcolm uses Heather And Honey as a metaphor for the way rich landowners have been handed green tax breaks to create obstacles for ordinary folk to earn a living in the Scottish Highlands. Other tracks rely on traditions from the American West, driven home by the rich imagery of Out On The Western Plains, a fine adaptation of this old Leadbetter song with Malcolm providing additional lyrics and featuring the bluesy guitar work of Pat McManus. Buffalo Thunder is a well-constructed piece about Scottish-born James ‘Scotty’ Philips, a pioneering cowboy credited with saving the American buffalo from extinction. The tone of this song is ripe with allegories and historical cues that I’ve come to expect from Malcolm MacWatt. 

Nevertheless, the most affecting offering of all is the moving Red River Woman, which revolves around the true story of the mistreatment and murder of native Canadian women, providing a historical narrative to a dark and overlooked era of racism. Empire In Me, also tackles the racism issue, this time honing-in on a slave girl brought from a Guyana plantation to Fortrose/Rosemarkie, Scotland. Cornish folk singer Angeline Morrison, whose own ancestry is Caribbean/Hebridean, brings her gorgeous, visceral voice to bear on this emotional song. Malcolm’s skills as an adroit instrumentalist are also well demonstrated with the all-too-brief rollicking Drowsy Maggie instrumental which forms where the music of Appalachia and the Scottish Highlands meet. After a minute the tune segues into a stark, realistic look at the current Scottish drug problem in the tale of a young Maggie, her baby and boyfriend owing and running from violent drug gangs. This, my friends, is what modern folk music should be all about … real life in the 21st century, warts and all. Playing a mix of original melodies and borrowed folk tunes, mangled together with influences from across the globe, Malcolm MacWatt creates haunting, intelligent music. His warm rasp is like perfectly softened leather, enveloping you like a warm hug, despite the hard-hitting lyrics. He never disappoints, and on his new album he takes his musical game to a new level, elevating the listener with it.

www.malcolmmacwatt.com

December 2023