In his recent book, the comedian Stewart Lee movingly describes the process of coming to terms with a niche audience. The same refusal to bow to the mainstream is on display in this latest recording from the Scottish folk trio Lau. Composed of guitarist Kris Drever, fiddler Aidan O’Rourke and Martin Green on accordion, the trio have garnered critical success since 2004, including three prizes at the BBC Radio Two Folk Awards. But this latest collaboration with avant-garde producer and Domino Records artist Adem employs a defiant take it or leave it approach.
Lau have never sat comfortably within the conventional canon. Their 2007 debut Lightweights and Gentlemen was a potent brew of extended chamber music and beautifully reconstructed traditionals. Aidan O’Rourke’s solo release in the following year, An Tobar, set out a strong duality of thinking that offered up sober classicism with moments that edged into jazz.
Ghosts forms part of a series of collaborative projects, with the first EP featuring the songwriter Karine Polwart. Lau and Adem have painted a far more expansive soundscape than ever before. I was strongly reminded of King Creosote and Jon Hopkins’ recent alliance, both artists constantly pushing each other towards a stronger sense of adventure. This is a loosening rather than an abandonment of their musical personalities.
Opening with ‘Farewell to Whisky Chess’, looped violin spiccato moves into repeated cells of extended technique as Kris Drever shades the delicate gauze with stately arpeggiation. It plays to a field-recording aesthetic, slowly shifting between instruments without losing coherence. ‘Imporsa’ unfurls a traditional landscape before blurring into electronic bursts of ringing, degrading noise. It soon steps back down from the brutal lottery of sound towards taut percussion. Cutting through the record is ‘Happy Sevens’, a nod to Lau’s traditionalism that almost seems exotic in its orthodoxy.
Lau know that they are playing to a niche crowd. Certainly there’s been a revival in British folk music, fuelled in part by an aversion to the public school set of Noah and the Whale. Yet Lau constantly go beyond tradition, fully committed to pushing the boundaries of their sound world.