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A triumph of northern soul

After a decade of devolution, Scottish bands have found their voice

It is almost 30 years since Glasgow’s small but perfectly formed Postcard label offered up the original Sound of Young Scotland. Jaunty, jangly and elegant of fringe, Orange Juice, Aztec Camera and Josef K wore their love of Love, the Byrds, Chic and the Velvet Underground very firmly on the sleeves of their tassled suede jackets. The music was great – and influential – but, in the three decades since, Scottish music has often exhibited signs of an ongoing identity crisis.

If the stadium-fillers (Simple Minds), Bowie-infatuated crooners (Love and Money, Franz Ferdinand), disciples of US pop and soul (Teenage Fanclub, Deacon Blue, Texas) and slavish devotees of Lower East Side nihilist chic (stand up, the Jesus and Mary Chain) spoke volumes about a nation accustomed to looking outwards rather than to itself for inspiration, something fundamental has changed in recent years. You can hear the shift in Frightened Rabbit’s second album, The Midnight Organ Fight, one of the highlights of 2008 and a folky masterclass in thrumming dynamics; hear it, too – perhaps more resoundingly – in the Phantom Band’s recent debut, Checkmate Savage, a dizzyingly self-sufficient record, diverse, abstract and futuristic, content to sound like nothing else around right now. The two albums are utterly unalike, but they share an independence of spirit and an instinct for exploration that is rapidly becoming the imprimatur of modern Scottish music.

It seems significant that both bands sing in Scottish accents. Whereas 15 years ago the Proclaimers were lone pilgrims in this regard, nowadays dozens of artists – from those on the margins, like Aidan Moffat and De Rosa, to bona fide pop acts such as Sons and Daughters, Camera Obscura and Glasvegas – use their natural accent. “It would be foolish to sing any other way,” argues Scott Hutchison, vocalist with Frightened Rabbit. “I was always prone to writing honest thoughts, and singing them in someone else’s voice would just seem a bit odd. The confidence within bands that come from Scotland is at such a high right now, it seems so unnecessary.”

This change is partly attributable to the general decentralisation of the music industry, encouraging a more localised approach. “It’s possible to make music now and not worry about moving to London or pleasing a big record company,” says the Phantom Band’s Greg Yale. “You can do it yourself and then punt it on, which means people can be themselves a bit more.”

Something else, however, is lurking at the edge of the frame. Whatever its material effect, there is no question that a decade of devolution has begun to reshape the national psyche. In his History of Modern Britain, Andrew Marr wrote that, post-1999, “Scotland feels more like a different country, and London now seems a lot more than 400 miles from Edinburgh.” You can hear this loosening of cultural and psychological ties in the best new Scottish bands, and not just in the way they sing. Though as happy to use doo-wop harmonies as they are to pillage Glasgow’s vibrant club culture, they’ve also found a way of drawing upon their heritage of folk music without sliding into nostalgia or parochialism. “Folk has deep roots in this country, it’s impossible to ignore, but you’ve got to forget about authenticity,” says Yale. “There’s no pure source. A lot of folky stuff is pretty interesting and dark, so it’s about trying to keep hold of that and not be too reverential.”

And there is an eagerness to engage with wider Scottish culture. The frame of reference encompasses the visual arts (like Hutchison, two members of the Phantom Band are gifted artists and shape the group’s visual identity). It also takes in literature (Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, that reimagining of national self-image, inspired many songs on My Latest Novel’s excellent new Deaths and Entrances; Idlewild have collaborated with the national poet, or Makar, Edwin Morgan) and even geography: the Phantom Band, in particular, produce a monolithic sound that manages to evoke Scotland’s daunting physical grandeur without resorting to bombast or bagpipes.

Brimming with locally generated energy and ideas, the results are original and forward-looking, arty without being remotely precious. Although Hutchison maintains that there is no fixed ethos uniting these bands – “Everyone’s trying to forge their own path irrespective of scene. There’s not that big collective thing that seemed to happen in the past,” he says – they share certain basic ideals: the emphasis on being “honest” and not seeking refuge in artifice; a hatred of posturing, cliques and trends; a desire to let the work speak for itself. “No one’s trying to be overtly cool,” says Chris Deveney, singer/bassist of My Latest Novel. “People nowadays in Scotland are usually quite comfortable about where they’re from. There’s something quite romantic and socialist about it all.”

Perhaps that’s the key. Yale describes the Phantom Band as “pretty democratic. We’ve never had a plan, we’ve never said we want to be this or that kind of band. We set out to be sociable and do something on a Friday night, but out of that everyone’s interests have to be served in some way.” This is the creative application of Scotland’s socialist heritage and the musical embodiment of Alasdair Gray’s maxim: “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.”

Very much like Scotland itself in the new millennium, these bands in the vanguard of what could be termed the New Sound of Young Scotland – “young Scotland” in both senses – are attempting to write the future as they meet it.

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This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!