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Born out of the annual Burnsong songwriting retreat, The Burns Unit is apparently the band no-one wanted to be in, a freak co-operation between eight disparate talents that somehow came up with a bit of magic. There's some live dates coming up soon, including Celtic Connections; I'm not sure how likely it is that this set of people will collaborate again so I'd recommend catching them while you can - it certainly won't be quite like anything else you'll see this year.
In a kind of reworking of the Transatlantic Sessions idea, The Burns Unit has a strong Canadian presence in Kim Edgar, Michael Johnston and Mattie Foulds, the last named being married to Karine Polwart who brings her folk background to the banquet; then there's King Creosote, Emma Pollock and Future Pilot AKA (aka Sushil Dade of The Soup Dragons) - celebrated Scots indie/rock/pop characters - and, finally, MC Soom T , Indo-Glaswegian vocal stylist of genre busting habits and virtuosic capabilities. It's an extraordinary mix of talents and an extraordinary range of material was produced by the different combinations they formed to write songs. It could easily sound like a sampler record, hopping from one style to the other, but somehow or other there's some ghost holding the whole thing together. No, I'm not suggesting that the shade of Burns himself is permeating things. It's rather that there's a particular combination of seriousness, tenderness, humour and urgency that crops up over and again; Mattie Foulds' drumming, in particular, really becomes a unifying characteristic as he makes an urgent thumping noise that lets you know that this isn't a laid-back jamming session going on here, this is music with artistic fire in its belly.
With six lead vocalists to choose from and that wide range of songwriting background, a lot of ground is covered. Kim Edgar and Karine Polwart collaborate to produce a very Kate Bush-like sound on Blood, Ice and Ashes, a claustrophobically dark tale of love gone wrong; Michael Johnston and Emma Pollock get all Cabaret-ish on You Need Me To Need This, whilst a four way collaboration produces the delicately ironic lullaby, Sorrys, a song about a relationship being destroyed by alcoholism. There's more, and as varied as it gets, it's all music of considerable substance. The songs that stick the most for me are the opening track, Since We've Fallen Out, and Send Them Kids To War, which is an irresistible tour de force.
Since We've Fallen Out is an oddly low-key way to open an album, but it's a peach of a song, written in the depths of regret at a failed relationship and shot through with intense poignancy. King Creosote and Karine Polwart make a duet of it and the whole thing achieves a simple directness that absolutely hits the nail on the head.
By almost complete contrast, Send Them Kids To War could have been written by Joe Strummer and given to Boney M for a pop makeover, before someone decided to slot it on to a Bollywood film shot in Benbecula. Honestly, you check out that Gaelic/Hindi vocalisation going on in the background, it's absolutely inspired. Angry and urgent, it features an astonishing vocal from Soom T, shooting the words out so fast that you'll never hear them all at first pass. In making the title line stand out with music so jolly and upbeat, it pulls off a trick that Springsteen uses a lot, an ironic juxtaposition that sugars the pill of an angry song.
All in all, great stuff then and if they persuaded themselves to do it all again in a year or two, we could be in for a regular treat. In the meantime, just four chances to see them perform together this January.
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