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Well I haven’t heard all of Charlie Roth’s previous six albums, but I suspect that Cactus Tartan Heart is his best work yet. Inspired by his recent troubadour travels around the British Isles, Charlie seems to have distilled his own particular melange of Celtic, country and folk music into something that touches the pure source of these things, threading the strands together so that his version of Wild Mountain Thyme can sit comfortably alongside his own bottom-of-the-bottle honky tonk song, Lonely Bar, and sound like natural company for each other.
Half of these songs are Charlie’s own work; two co-writes, two from the (British) tradition and one each from Jack Hardy and Tim Henderson complete the line-up and, in a subtle way, every strand of folk music seems to make an appearance. Social commentary, sentimentality, love songs, humour and a strong feel for the core truths of life are married to gently beautiful music making. Charlie’s knack for a natural melody and the understated beauty of his guitar playing (and that of his sidekick, Kurt Rodman) is at the heart of the music but, in a quiet sort of a way, this is a really rich production. More than a dozen other musicians play their part in these songs, participating in arrangements that gently enhance each one. There’s an ironically cheerful shuffle on the hard times song, Baltic Avenue, that features some nicely boozy trumpet playing from Tom Pattock; we get the full Irish monty, complete with whistle and bodhran, for Jack Hardy’s fine song about an Irish migrant worker, Uley Mill Song, and on the song that closes the album, Cactus Heart, an elegant arrangement of acoustic guitar, viola and bodhran keeps things warm and intimate. The cherry on the top of it all for me is Charlie’s take on Wild Mountain Thyme. This is possibly the best version of this old standard that I’ve ever heard; Charlie’s vocal is utterly sincere, he really sounds like he’s crooning to the lass of his fancy, whilst the arrangement is utterly gorgeous. There’s some beautiful playing on the hammered dulcimer from Paul Imholte that sounds like a mountain burn in springtime – absolutely excellent stuff.
Sometimes you become aware that it’s Charlie’s singing that is the real star of this album. For a mid-western American he sounds remarkably Irish to me when the song calls for it. I don’t have Irish ears, obviously, but he seems to be able to inhabit the world of his Irish songs quite as comfortably as he sings his more obviously country/Americana numbers. He travels from the wry humour of Wadayagonado to the desperate pleading of Holy Mother of God and sounds completely at one with the feel of the song – and with the tradition of each idiom – every time. I was fortunate enough to be witness to Charlie’s pied piper charm when he was over in the Highlands last year and I’m so pleased he’s been able to nail on record what makes him such an engaging performer; he has an absolute devotion to song and a child-like enthusiasm for all the wonders that the world of song can unfold, so these twelve songs are just a sample of what he can do, and just possibly the finest slice of transatlantic folk that you’ll hear this year. Finally, an added bonus is that the cover of the cd features one of Danny Schmidt's many excellent photographs; Danny is a fine songwriter himself and keeps a photoblog that is a joy to follow.
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