Scottish folk, but not entirely as you expect it.
If there were such a thing as Caledoniana, The Langan Band could well be leading the charge. This is the band’s first studio recording in almost ten years and it draws heavily on their grounding in traditional Scottish folk music but there are one or two nice departures from that template and a couple of real surprises. The near ten-year gap between their two full-length recordings to date seems to have come about when John Langan was sidelined, following the release of 2013’s well-received debut album, “Bones Of Contention”, by a series of events that included getting married, having kids, getting divorced, breaking an arm, and finding himself unable to focus on music. Then, at the start of 2020, having reconnected with his music and with a new agent and an Australian tour planned, along came Covid….
This album is the result of finally being able to get into Black Bay studio, on the Isle of Bernera in the Outer Hebrides and, with the help of money raised from fans through crowdfunding, start recording and capturing the sound of a ten-year hiatus, and the result is impressive. “Plight of Sheep” is an innovative and fascinating album.
The album kicks off with ‘One Whole Year’, which was also the first single released from the recording. It’s a good, solid song that shows off the band’s folk credentials well and displays a strong romantic streak to Langan’s writing, though there’s little to mark it as out of the ordinary. That’s not so true of the second track (also the second single from this album), the rousing ‘Leg of Lamb’ which is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a song celebrating a leg of lamb which, much to the displeasure of all, gets stolen, hence “If I ever find the thief, I’ll put him in the ground”. It’s a lot of fun as a song and builds nicely, with the band really switching it up in the closing phases. In fact, as the album progresses it unveils more surprises and reveals its hidden depths. This is an album that definitely grows in stature the more you listen. ‘Bastard Hills of Totterdown’ is another raucous slice of Celtic folk and in ‘Sweetness’ there’s a further glimpse of the band’s more romantic side, but it’s the later tracks that do the most to show that The Langan Band are not just another Celtic folk group.
The quite magnificent ‘Djelem Djelem’ moves the band firmly out of Scottish folk territory and into the wilds of North Africa, full of fine staccato playing and soaring harmonies, it’s a track that dips and dives and is really quite hypnotic. Perhaps the standout track of the album.
The Langan Band are John Langan (Guitar, Vocals, Percussion, Accordion), Dave Tunstall (Double Bass, Mandolin, Small Pipes, Vocals), and Alastair Caplin (Violin, Viola, Accordion, Vocals) and all are in outstanding form on this album, but the fiddle work of Alastair Caplin really stands out on a number of tracks, and none more so than on ‘The Drunken Dwarf’, an instrumental track that shows off his virtuosity as a fiddler but also demonstrates how incredibly tight and musically disciplined this three-piece unit are. There’s an impressive change of tempo as the track builds to its ultimate climax.
The final track to really stand out is the final track, ‘Old Tom’s Waltz/Reel Valencia’ and this is another right turn away from the Scottish tradition and into a wider European context, with the almost Klezmer-sounding main theme interspersed with hints of Flamenco and very impressive signature changes; an almost entirely instrumental track apart from occasional harmonised chanting from the band, it’s a track of real ambition and sonic creativity.
This album is something of an enigma. On one hand, you have a very Scottish band playing quite traditional-sounding folk music, and then they break out into the most extraordinary tracks of impressive complexity and real musical ambition and, sometimes, it’s hard to reconcile the two aspects of this band on the same recording. This is a good record and everything on it is very listenable but the album, as a whole, has a slightly disjointed feel to it. Perhaps it’s that ten year hiatus and the need to express a lot of ideas and creativity in a single burst, but some will be left with the feeling that the band you want to hear more of is the one that’s pushing towards that wider world music sound and identity. It may be that these are the songs of a band in transition and it’s to be hoped that we don’t have to wait another ten years before their next recording. This band is never ordinary but they can sound slightly predictable on the more mundane of their material -but when they really fly they’re pretty much untouchable and you will be astonished by some of the music on this album.