Rags & Robes is a resoundingly fresh-sounding album of folk songs, unveiling the distinctive, unwavering vocals of Ewan McLennan alongside his unassuming but colourful arrangements. McLennan has an earthy, weathered voice that is well placed to flesh out the drama and emotions occupying the songs on Rags & Robes. Largely consisting of just Ewan and his guitar, with occasional accompaniment from Peter Tickell on fiddle, and Jackie Oates on viola and vocal harmonies, the arrangements are crisp and uncluttered.
Singing unaccompanied on "Old Man's Tale," McLennan demonstrates an effortlessly emotive power, with a voice of robust beauty and clarity that makes listening a thoroughly engrossing experience. It's McLennan's unfussy delivery that really places the emphasis on the story-telling aspect of his craft, weaving a steadfast narrative that evokes genuine empathy with the songs' characters.
A brave, sprightly interpretation of "Arthur McBride" well and truly puts McLennan's voice through its paces, and he manages well not to trip over his words on this rumbustious effort. "Joe Hill" and Ewan MacColl's "Jamie Foyers" are sung with a particular passion that teases out the intense sentiments of the lyrics, not through volume or tempo, but a sheer purposefulness and palpable sense of responsibility to infuse the song with respect for the story and its subjects. Jackie Oates' viola adds a certain potency to "Joe Hill."
Whilst it will be McLennan's voice that draws your immediate attention - and holds it - it would be remiss to overlook the similarly impressive proficiency that he displays on the guitar. Playing with a meticulous, fluid style, McLennan seems to pitch just the right amount of ornamentation such that the arrangements avoid being unnecessarily clumsy, providing ample opportunity for each note to ring out and for the listener to fully absorb the melody. The instrumental track, "Jer The Rigger / Flowers Of Edinburgh," allows you to fully appreciate McLennan's disarming combination of dexterity and restraint.
Rags & Robes provides Ewan McLennan with just reason to stake a claim to being one of the Scottish folk scene's finest male vocalists, bringing a clarity and energy that carry a broad appeal. The no-nonsense virtues instilled in Rags & Robes establish McLennan as the real deal: a folk singer and musician who demonstrates unquestionable talent, with an appeal that is likely to prove timeless and lasting. Ewan McLennan may well be the best singer you'll hear all year.
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