Ailie Robertson – First Things First (Lorimer)

Young Scottish harpist Ailie’s pedigree is already impressive: five times National Mod Gold Medallist, erstwhile member of the Scottish Harp Orchestra, Na Clarasairean, and currently member of international six-piece band The Outside Track (who have been delighting UK festival audiences over the past year, and whose CD I reviewed in Stirrings 133). Inevitably, Ailie’s debut solo CD is a more intimate affair, with an at times quite laid-back atmosphere that’s both soothing and invigorating. Ailie’s instrument is the clarsach (the small harp whose recent resurgence has been led by the likes of Corrina Hewat and Patsy Seddon), and its unique and definitive sound-world is captured here in a demonstration-class recording that manages to convey all the relevant nuances and timbres in due perspective without sounding at all clinical or sterile. Each of the eleven tracks brings its own special delights, starting with the almost jazzy insouciance of the opening set of jigs, where the rippling joy of the harp line offsets James Ross’s classy piano embellishments and the crisp, busy percussion backing (Paul Jennings on cajon). The playing is sprightly, yet with an enviably relaxed precision of attack that holds the listener’s attention throughout – and this quality applies equally to the slower-paced items on the disc, notably the gorgeous slow air Spirits (co-written by Angus Lyon and his father), which forms its centrepiece. The Irish and Scottish hornpipes that are wedded together on the gently swinging Marry Me Now set are a model of delicate playing, with Ailie’s deft syncopations and skilfully bent “blue notes” enticingly complemented by guitar (Ewan Robertson) and bass (Duncan Lyall); these same two musicians bring an exhilarating sense of drive to the tricky time-signatures of Ailie’s own tune Good Spirits in the ensuing set. Ailie’s slower-than-customary treatment of The Favourite Dram brings out its inherent beauty in a way I’ve not heard on any other recording of the tune, while her own composition Sands Of Hosta (written after a long beach walk on North Uist) is both genuinely tranquil and introspectively evocative. And you can hear Ailie taking the harp technique into hitherto-uncharted areas of innovation and expertise on tracks such as the infectious Angus Jigs set: the closer you listen, the more detail there is to revel in. First Things First is a thoroughly charming disc, replete with both a consummate finger-dancing intelligence and an irrepressible joie-de-vivre.

David Kidman August 2008