Usually, when I read about any group being referred to as the: “most innovative band” of their chosen genre, I take this with the proverbial pinch of salt. Often, that’s far from the truth. Mostly, its the result of marketing hype gone into overdrive, wihful thinking, desperation or a manager who thinks they’re Malcolm McClaren. This isn’t doing the band any favors. It’s setting them up for a fall, if their album bombs or the band implodes. However, sometimes this isn’t hype. Very occasionally, a band can walk the walk. Not only are the band just as innovative as promised, but much more. That’s the case with Lau, whose fourth album Race The Loser, which was released on Reveal Records, made the long-list for 2012s Scottish Album Of The Year Award. With the short-list going to be announced on Thursday 30th May 2013, Scottish music awaits the announcement of the contenders of Scotland’s premier music award? Will, and should, Lau be on it? That’s what I’ll tell you, once I’ve told you about Lau, and then, Race The Loser.

Described variously as “adventurous,” and “modern folk’s most innovative band” since the release of their debut album, 2007s Lightweights and Gentlemen, Kris Drever, Martin Green and Aidan O’Rourke have been winning awards, praise and plaudits ever since. This includes winning four BBC Folk Award for best group four times in six years. That’s no wonder. Lau spent a year honing their songs and sound before releasing their debut album, Lightweights and Gentlemen. Ever the perfectionists, Lau freely admit to spending up to three weeks on a song. 

Over the next six years, Lau have released three further albums, while the three members have worked on other projects. Despite these other projects, they’ve always returned to Lau, which the three members fondly describe as “the mothership.” Still, Lau found time to establish a reputation as one of Scotland’s best live bands. Whether it was festivals or small intimate venues, Lau lifted the roof with their unique brand of folk music. Proof of this came on their second album Live. Combining electronic and traditional instruments Lau soon garnered a large, loyal following, who waiting Lau’s next studio album with baited breath. 

Two years after their debut album Lightweights and Gentlemen, Lau released their sophomore studio album Arc Light in 2009. Released to critical acclaim, critics hailed Arc Light as further proof that Lau were the future of folk music. Soon, other artist were wanting to collaborate with Lau.

First to collaborate with Lau was Karine Polwart. Five new songs were recorded. When Lau Vs. Karine Polwart released Evergreen, this reinforced and enhanced both Lau and Karine’s reputation as two of modern folk’s most best artists. Then in 2010, acoustic and electronic artist and producer Adem collaborated with Lau. Together, they recorded seven new tracks, which were released as Lau Vs. Adem’s Ghosts. The second in the Vs. Lau series proved just as successful as the first. As if this wasn’t encouraging enough, Lau’s reputation as a live band was still growing at home and abroad. All that was needed was another studio album from Lau.

Back in Castlesound Studios, Pencaitland, Lau recorded the nine tracks that became Race The Loser in May 2012. Lead vocalist Kres Drever played guitars and harmonica, Martin Green played accordion, Wurlitzer organ and electronics, while Aidan O’Rourke played the fiddle. Producing Race The Loser was Grammy Award nominated producer Tucker Martine. With a C.V. that included working with Sufjan Stevens, Camera Obscura, R.E.M. and Laura Veirs, having Tucker produce Race The Loser was quite a coup. This coup d’etat worked when Race The Loser was released in 2012. Praise, plaudits and critical acclaim came Lau’s way. This you’ll realize, was fully deserved, when I tell you about Lau’s Race The Loser.

Opening Race The Loser is Saint Monday, whose stop, start introduction grabs your attention. Having set the scene, fiddles produce a wistful backdrop. It brings to mind all sort of thoughts and scenarios. With its particularly Scottish sound, it brings to mind the Scottish landscape. Then a meandering guitars and an accordion combine before Kris’ emotive vocal enters. The lyrics he deliver, paint pictures that are a reminder of what Scotland was. This once industrial giant has been humbled, and is a shadow of its former self. Kris’ vocal gives a voice to the men and women whose lives were forever changed. 

Far From Portland has a mysterious, but dramatic sound. Just the keyboards, driving guitars, fiddles and then accordion build the drama. Layers of sound unfold, with traditional and contemporary influences becoming one. This is Lau’s unique sound. Mysterious, becomes moody, maudlin and then melancholy and melodic. One thing the music always is, is captivating and inherently beautiful.

Handclaps reverberate while an understated acoustic guitar provides a contrast. Gradually, The Bird That Winds The Spring decides to reveal is subtleties. Kris weary, but all-knowing vocal is accompanied by fiddles, guitars and handclaps. Then when his vocal drops out, fiddles take centre-stage, before Kris returns. Scatting, he’s accompanied by keyboards and handclaps. Veering between pensive and uplifting, its always emotive.

Missing Pieces is just a short amuse bouche of a track, which demonstrates why Lau are perceived as such an innovative band. With its electronic influence, it asks questions, leaving you to provide the answer.

Save The Bees with its combination of guitars, fiddles and accordion fuses elements of traditional folk with a much more contemporary, forward thinking sound. Soon, you realize, Lau are the future of folk music. Not only that, but the result is a quite beautiful, picturesque soundscape. Soon, the tempo increases. You’re swept away, amidst fiddles and guitars which are played with equal measure of emotion, passion and talent. Haring towards a reel, Lau kick loose, show-casing their considerable talents and demonstrating just why, they’re currently one of the best live bands.

Torsa is one of the most evocative and heartbreakingly beautiful tracks on Race The Loser. For an exiled Scot, hearing this track, would have them heading homewards to the land of their birth. This is thanks to the unmistakable sound of the fiddles and accordion. They’re joined by guitar, washes of an atmospheric electronic sound. Later, keyboards are added, as a the tempo increases with fiddles, flutes and acoustic guitar producing an irresistible call homewards to exiled Scots everywhere.

Throwing Pennies, a song about homelessness, is one of the best songs Lau have written. Filled with articulate social comment, it’s a song designed to make you think. As Kris sings of “breaking the ties with home” and “the tarmac is your blanket,” he’s telling the story of far too many people. Kris’ trusty acoustic accompanies his vocal, and with sadness, resignation and a weariness, he delivers the lyrics. Later, the addition of harmonies and accordion are the finishing touches to an emotive, deeply moving and heartbreaking song.

Noltland Castle has a real Celtic sound. Just an accordion and meandering acoustic guitar combine before the fiddles sweep in. Soon, the tempo increases and Aidan O’Rourke’s fiddles take centre-stage, where they rightly belong. 

Closing Race The Loser is Beer Engineer, a truly eclectic track. Quite simply, you never know what direction the track is heading. It has an understated introduction as an acoustic guitar sets the scene. Fiddles and a broody bass enter, as the arrangement veers between folk and jazz. Producing a challenging, almost dramatic sound, it reaches a crescendo before being transformed to something more sedate. Something much more sedate then becomes much more rocky and, dare I say it, nearly psychedelic. The result was a tantalizing taste of Lau versatility and eclecticism.

Listening to the nine tracks that comprise Race The Loser, the time just flies past. It’s an album you can lose yourself in, especially the instrumentals. You close your eyes, and pictures unfold. These pictures are reminiscent of the Celtic landscape, especially Scotland. They’re painted by the three members of Lau. Using their vibrant musical palette, these pictures are variously evocative, emotive, subtle, dramatic and beautiful, just like Scotland’s spectacular landscape. Then, when you’ve heard Race The Loser, you reach over, press play and experience its subtleties and nuances again. Reveling in its subtleties and charms, with each listen, further subtleties and beauty reveals itself. Regardless of how often you hear Race The Loser, you never tire of an album that which is essentially a folk album, is much more than. 

While it would be easy to describe Race The Loser as folk album, it’s much more than that. Granted folk is the most predominant influence, but there’s elements of jazz, rock, electronica and soul. The soul comes in the shape of Kris’ world-weary, all-knowing vocal. So, Lau’s fourth album Race The Loser is essentially a folk album, albeit with disparate influences running through the nine tracks, it’s folk for the 21st Century. Lau and artists like Karine Polwart are the future of folk, not just Scottish folk, but British folk music. 

Previously perceived as the pastime and preserve of single men with beards, drinking warm beer and wearing hand-knitted woolen jumpers, folk music has changed, and changed for the better. Realizing that it couldn’t stand still, folk music had to evolve. That’s what it did, attracting a new generation of fans. It attracted a much more dynamic and diverse audience. As a result, folk music is thriving. It’s attracting a younger, wider and growing audience. Folk music is also moving into the mainstream, with Lau’s fourth album Race The Loser making the long-list for 2012s Scottish Album Of The Year Award. Race The Loser should be on the short-list when it’s announced on Thursday 30th May 2013. Whether Lau, one of folk music’s most successful bands, will win the Scottish Album Of The Year Award with Race The Loser, and add it to their other awards, we’ll need to see. Standout Tracks: Saint Monday, The Bird That Winds, Torsa dn Throwing Pennies.


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