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The sobriquet of STFU here once again conceals Belfast-born ex-Coal-Porter Pat McGarvey, who this time around has turned up with another, and almost entirely different, support crew; indeed, and confusingly, only mandolinist Adam Bullen and guitarist/singer Chris Purcell remain out of the personnel we encountered on the folk-bluegrass collective’s previous album The New Farming Scene of just a year or so back. The lineup is now completed with Edinburgh folk scene stalwarts Carrie Thomas (fiddle) and Jenny Hill (double bass), guitarist/lead singer Jed Milroy (of The Aliens) and equally distinctive lead vocalist Ewan Macintyre.

In a way, Pencaitland is another concept record, whose clutch of original songs here centres around the transient nature of an utopian ideal – which is made flesh in the title track’s small town of artists/musicians sowing their own seeds of destruction. The concept’s sub-themes are credibly varied, though, and range from warfare (Ida Won’t Go) through to relationship issues (At The Break Of Dawn). Generously too, its intended artistic unity is not generally compromised by its democratic nature (five different SFTU songwriters are represented on the album, including Pat himself who is responsible for six out of the album’s 14 songs). However, it’s hard to escape the slightly unfortunate impression given by some momentary uncertainties of tone, including minor lapses of folk-cred like the poppish singalong If You’ve Got The Heart which rather makes light of its subject-matter.

The collective has an ongoing mission to marry the different but related strands of Scottish folk with the old-time string band sound, and by and large they succeed in this, especially in terms of the attractively acoustic instrumental balance and blend, although their excursions into more eclectic territory don’t always work to the same degree when it comes to expressing their chosen themes – at times the idiom is at odds with the sentiment.

Contrasted highlights of the set for me include Carrie’s delectable waltz-time composition The Tide (where she takes the vulnerable lead-vocal role herself) and Pat’s declamatory worker-exploitation commentary The Rights And Interests Of The Labouring Man, as well as Monument (a co-write between Pat and Jed), Ewan’s catchy Labour Season and the one instrumental track, penned by Jed – who also contributes a fiery, brooding adaptation of Yeats’ poem An Irish Airman Foresees His Death. I can appreciate why SFTU have a fearsome reputation for their melding of folk and bluegrass, but in the end, some strong songwriting notwithstanding, I’m not quite convinced that the new diversity in the writing styles is entirely beneficial to either the album concept or the group identity.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 89 of The Living Tradition magazine.