21st Century Reviews

You liked Roaring Jack, you might like some of the recent releases reviewed here!

09 October 2008

The Malkies – Suited and Booted (Limbo, 2008)

In the street slang of Glasgow, a malky can be either a sharp knife or a not-so-sharp person. These malkies definitely come complete with a pointy edge. It’s Alistair Hulett with a band – predominantly acoustic instruments augmented with bass and drums – for the first time since the days of Roaring Jack. The hectic pace and volume of Roaring Jack are no longer with us, and we’re left with a band of talented instrumentalists on top of their game and lyrics and vocals that really shine.

We’re treated to a mix of Alistair Hulett originals, traditional tunes and covers of a few 20th century folk classics. Roaring Jack fans will recognise quite a few songs in the Malkies’ repertoire, starting with the opening track ‘Buy Us a Drink’. This is a laid-back and almost reverent reading of what we fondly remember as a raucous, shameless drinking song. Alistair still sings with passion about living in a ‘shitty old hole’, unlike those Canadian folkies who cleaned up this song for mass consumption! This version works itself into a neat little groove, before departing suddenly to make way for ‘Out in the Danger Zone’. Though missing the Uillean pipes that made the version on The Back Streets of Paradise so moving, the new rendition still manages to hit hard. Great slide guitar and Rachel Goodwin‘s sweet harmony vocals add a new dimension. Rachel’s only a guest on this album, but she adds so much that it’d be great to see her to join the band on a permanent basis.

‘High Germany’ is a traditional song that’s lifted into the 21st century thanks to the haunting slide guitar and Hugh Bradley’s atmospheric double bass. ‘Playing for the Traffic’ gets a western swing treatment with a strolling beat that certainly matches the mood of the song. Alistair has cleaned up the lyrics somewhat: the ‘penny pinching bastards’ are now ‘penny pinching skivers’, but that’s OK because it rhymes with ‘nine to fivers’!

‘Are There Honky Tonks in Heaven’ was always a live fave at Roaring Jack gigs. Here’s a version that rocks in a much quieter way, but still kicks butt. Phil Snell features prominently on the mandolin, but thanks to the wonders of modern technology Phil’s fiddle and lap steel can also be heard blazing through the song.

‘The Wife of Usher’s Well’ was for me a highlight of Alistair’s shows with Dave Swarbrick in Sydney last year. This version features intricate finger-picking and an emotive vocal performance from Hulett over Hugh Whitaker’s helter-skelter beat.

On Riches and Rags, Hulett stirred a traditional Scots flavour into a swag of American blues and folk songs. This recipe carries over into some of the tracks on Suited and Booted. There’s a furious driving beat on Woody Guthrie’s ‘Pastures of Plenty’, contrasting with the eerie slide guitar that works brilliantly to convey the sparseness and isolation of the lyrics. This is a tremendous version that is up there with the work that Billy Bragg and Wilco did on Woody’s unreleased material in the late 1990s. One of the standout tracks. A well-interpreted cover of Pete Seeger’s ‘Quite Early Morning’ similarly bears the feel of Riches and Rags. Its carefree breezy mood will have you swatting flies and drinking whiskey on the porch (even if you don’t have a porch).

The cross-pollination on Suited and Booted often goes the other way, with the Malkies injecting an Americana flavour into some iconic Scots folk songs. Like ‘The Road to Dundee’, with its beautiful slide guitar providing a counterpunch to Hulett’s hillbilly finger-pickin’. ‘The Overgate’ is another traditional Scots ballad that gets the Americana-style treatment, and comes out the better for it. This is one song that is no doubt very powerful in a live setting.

There are never enough versions of ‘The Day the Boys Came Down’, in my view one of Hulett’s greatest tunes. This version features a hard-hitting snare drum and a bluesier feel than heard previously on The Cat Among the Pigeons and The Cold Grey Light of Dawn.

The album closes with a stirring folk-rock version of ‘The Internationale’ that eclipses not only Hulett’s earlier version, but probably Billy Bragg’s as well.

This is an assured debut from a band that is probably still finding its own voice. All the Hulett originals are songs we know and love, so it will be interesting to see if Alistair writes new songs tailor-made for the Malkies. The other members of the band are talented in their own right, so perhaps we can look forward to some inspired collaboration in the songwriting department. It will be a thrill to watch this band grow and develop its own unique audience, just as Roaring Jack did all those years ago.

Labels: , ,