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The Graham Album Review #2187

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Malcolm MacWatt: Dark Harvest

(Independent Release, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/21/2024)

The British Isles folk has been a genre that has attracted a small but loyal following in the US for a couple of generations now. A few of the originators of the style are still around, and there are a number of up-and-coming artists, outside of the active Celtic music scene. This week, we have a new recording by a Scottish-raised musician who over his career has drawn on American influences like bluegrass, which is something of the opposite of the more common musical situation of American musicians drawing on English and Celtic folk traditions. It’s Malcolm MacWatt, whose new recording is called Dark Harvest.

MacWatt’s last album, called Settler was an example of the American folk fusing with his own music. This time, on his new album Dark Harvest MacWatt brings more of the British Isles musical influences to his music, and created lyrics that are more essentially like protest songs, some of which are historical. Scottish autonomy is a subject he visits more than once on the album.

Raised in the Scottish Highlands, where the North Sea was a constant backdrop, his home region provides the inspiration for several of his songs. MacWatt himself, worked on the oil rigs offshore in the North Sea. Later, he did a stint as a newspaper journalist, so storytelling is an important part of his songs. And as mentioned, he has had a lifetime love of American songs and culture.

MacWatt is a multi-instrumentalist, and his last album, released in 2021 and made during the pandemic took advantage of that, with MacWatt playing all the instruments with a few guest vocalists. While not epidemiologically necessary now, the new album again features MacWatt playing almost all the instruments, with a few guests.

The album’s title Dark Harvest does reflect the somber tone of some of the songs, about oppressed indigenous people, the persecution of protesters over the centuries, the killing of whales, and the last person to be hanged in the UK.

Opening the generous hour-long album is a song called Strong Is the North Wind which MacWatt describes as a call for more Scottish autonomy, by means of the ballot box. <<>>

Some of MacWatt’s American influence is heard in the fiddles and harmonica of a song that is set in the UK. It’s another protest song called The Church and the Crown which have historically kept the people down. It mentions John Ball, who led the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381. His conclusion is that some things haven ’t changed over the centuries. <<>>

Another transatlantic fusion comes on Red River Woman a protest song about the bodies of indigenous Canadian women which have washed up on shore, after presumably being abused. <<>>

The title track Dark Harvest is about a Scottish island, Gruinard, where experiments in biological warfare were conducted during World War II, and which remained contaminated for decades until a protest by activists. <<>>

Also somber in tone is the track Brave David Tyrie who was accused of treason and the last person to be executed by hanging, drawing and quartering in England. <<>>

Set in the US is Buffalo Thunder about the near demise of the American buffalo, and the story of James “Scotty” Phillips, a rancher who was an early advocate for conserving the species <<>>

With allegorical lyrics is the song The Nightjar’s Fall from Grace, the nightjar being a particularly loud bird, whose voice downs out others. <<>>

One of the most interesting tracks on the album is the lengthy piece called The Last Bowman about how guns would replace the bow and arrow as a weapon on war. MacWatt writes that traditional archery has been hobby of his for years. <<>>

The album ends with an autobiographical song called Semi Scotsman a kind of love song to his country, with another appeal for Scottish autonomy. <<>>

Malcolm MacWatt’s new album Dark Harvest is a paean to his home country, with less of the American folk influence of his last album Settler. But there are still some elements of bluegrass and old timey music in this well-named recording of mostly contemplative songs with a number of references to historical injustices. He treats the subjects without being heavy-handed, and some of the songs tend toward optimism that things will be better eventually. Once again, MacWatt plays almost all the instruments himself, usually resulting in understated arrangements that back up his pleasing, and occasionally plaintive sounding baritone.

Our grade for audio quality is close to an “A.” The mix is clean and the acoustic instruments have a warm sound.

Malcolm MacWatt has straddled American and British folk influences for much of his career. Dark Harvest is another intelligent, and altogether first-rate recording from an artist who should be more widely known.

(c) Copyright 2024 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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