Spoiler alert; this is a cracking album. We haven’t reached the end of January yet and we’ve got the first five-star album. Malcolm MacWatt, with a few guest artists, has created a rounded and inspired piece of work that links Scottish and American music, historical and contemporary themes and political ideas spanning generations and centuries. Not only has Malcolm fused all of these ingredients to create a melodic and very thought-provoking album, he’s also tapped in to my own heritage as a Scottish expat who’s spent decades living in England while hanging on to those Celtic roots. It’s a powerful thing when an artist’s work hits you on musical and lyrical levels, even more so when it hits you on a personal level.

Malcolm’s upbringing as mixed-race Scottish in the Highlands followed by a spell working offshore in the oil industry. That kind of background, combined with a radical and inquiring spirit has led to some strong environmental, republican (not in the American sense) and nationalist (not in the jingoist Little England sense) views that permeate the album.

The opening two songs, the ‘Nebraska’-tinged ‘Strong is the North Wind’ and the triple-time ‘The Church and the Crown’ set the political tone for the album; the first is an exhortation to use the hard-earned right to vote, while the second criticises the power wielded by church and crown to subdue the masses and mentions historical figures Wat Tyler and John Ball. The songs ‘She Told Me Not to Go’ and ‘Heather and Honey’ both draw strong historical parallels with events that happened around two hundred years ago, the first linking the exploitation of nature and the environmental damage caused by factory whaling with similar problems caused by offshore oil drilling today. The second draws a straight line between The Highland Clearances and the slightly softer but still corrosive current approach of converting estates into playgrounds and hunting grounds for the rich and famous while forcing workers off the land and into the cities.

The title song with its traditional folk backing and spoken vocal tells another story of imperialism involving the wartime use of the Scottish island Gruinard as a testing site for anthrax as a chemical weapon before condemning it, supposedly forever a contaminated island before the Dark Harvest commandos intervened to bring the issue into the spotlight and force a clear-up.

And beyond this selection, the great songs keep coming. The highly personal and autobiographical ‘Empire in Me’ and ‘Semi-Scotsman’ and the stories of Scots helping to build the young America (‘Out on the Western Plain’ and ‘Buffalo Thunder’). Fourteen songs and every one a little classic from a gifted songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. It’s political, but Malcolm’s absolutely right in identifying current and historical injustice and placing it in the spotlight. You really need to listen to ‘Dark Harvest’; it’s packed with powerful melodies, great playing and lovely harmonies that all serve as vehicles for some disturbing truths.

‘Dark Harvest’ is out now on Need to Know Music (NTKBBV2024MM).

Here’s the video for the title track:

I may have mentioned that I love a challenge, but here’s one that I wasn’t expecting. I’ve never reviewed a triple album (bought a few in the vinyl era). Before The Clash released ‘Sandinista!’, the triple album was mainly a prog phenomenon with bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer using the format for extended instrumental workouts. The Clash brought it all back to basics with a classic six songs per side over six sides. Jeb Barry’s Pawn Shop Saints have taken the Clash’s value for money concept even further with fifteen tracks per album – the maths is easy, it’s forty-five songs. Sensibly enough, it’s a digital-only release to download or stream.

The project started just after 2023’s ‘Weeds’ album was completed and pulls together songs that were written over a period of twenty years or so. ’45 American Lies’ is a bit of a tidy-up operation; you have a stack of forty-five songs that you’ve gathered over the years that didn’t quite fit in on any previous albums but you think they have value so why not record them and get them all out there at the same time. The recording process was all about getting the songs recorded with a maximum of speed and a minimum of studio trickery. There’s a lot of material here and the common factors are Jeb Barry’s classic songwriting and his high lonesome voice. He’s not expecting everyone to like every song on the album (do you know anyone who likes every song on ‘Sandinista!’?), but he’s quite happy if you dip in and find a couple that you like from the smorgasbord on offer.

For what it’s worth, my favourites after a couple of listens (and that could easily change after another listen)  are ‘Liverpool’, a story of everyday male sexual jealousy, ‘Cottonwood’ and ‘Repo Man’ on the familiar Jeb Barry theme of the destruction of rural communities and ‘Heading to Parchman’, the story of a doomed relationship that culminates in twenty to life in Mississippi State Penitentiary, which has a rich history in popular song, including Hannah Aldridge’s 2014 classic, ‘Parchman’.

It’s a bit of a long shift listening to the whole piece, but if you like quality Americana, then you’ll find something for you in this collection.

’45 American Lies’ is out now on Dollyrocker Records.

Here’s an acoustic video of ‘Cottonwood’: