Gretna is a meagre wee town. Lying on the border between Scotland and England in the heart of the Debatable Lands, its identity will be forever forged in the wilderness that exists between one world and the next. And Christopher Rollen should know. It is his hometown and it is here that he spent his formative years and post-adolescence and now, blessed with the perspective of age and distance, he is able to reflect upon that time and place.
Chris Rollen returns to this once disputed stretch of ground and uses it as the source of his inspiration for The Debatable Land, the first album proper of what is his long-term, on-going musical project Pea Sea. He collates his memories from life in Gretna itself, visits to Redkirk and the surrounding parishes of Carlisle and Longtown, as well as his subsequent move to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and places them all onto the record like you would old photographs into an album. Having neatly arranged the eleven songs therein, he then bookends them with ‘Kirtle Waters Pt. 1 and 2’. In memory of many walks upon its banks, his distorted voice bobs along on the songs’ current as Tim Greaves’ clarinet gently traces the flow of the river circumventing Gretna on its way to the Border Esk. These are songs steeped in an unashamed nostalgia, the spirit of which is further captured by the recording techniques of David Brewis, who along with his brother Peter had invited Rollen to record the more recent songs that would eventually find their way onto this album at their new Field Music studio in Sunderland.
Beyond the first stretch of Kirtle Water lies ‘Dead Beat Formula’ where Rollen hijacks the chassis of Tom Waits’ ‘Goin’ Out West’ and upon it constructs a rollicking roadster of a tune. It belts along with wonderful gay abandon, Rollen committing himself to a rock n roll life in a voice he would surely borrow from Jonathan Richman had the American been born in Dumfries and Galloway. In similar Border Reiver mode, he then pillages the introduction from Richard Thomson’s ‘I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight’ before stretching it out into another muscular up-tempo rocker.
Having opened the door to The Debatable Land, Rollen invites the listener into the record’s heart and soul. For the next four tracks he douses the flames, hoists the flag of his Scottish forefathers Bert Jansch, Robin Williamson and Jackie Leven and shares with us the innocence, uncertainty and pain of half-realised relationships and that burgeoning realisation of having to leave your hometown to become who you are. The third of this stirring quartet of songs ‘Come Over’, recorded nearly four years ago with James Broomfield on the most understated and sympathetic of synth strings, is absolutely gorgeous, its poignancy almost tangible as you reach out to touch.
Rollen turns up the wick once more on ‘Inconceivable’ and ‘Pinocchio Nose’, the two songs from the album probably most reminiscent of Field Music as the Brewis brothers’ bass and drums firmly anchor Rollen’s angular, choppy guitar to their respective melodies. This is the sound of three men enjoying each other’s company and the music that they can create, something they achieve to nigh on perfection on their exquisite reading of Simon Joyner’s ‘When She Drops Her Veil’. It speaks to us of yearning for something that is just out of reach, a tantalising glimpse into a world that lies somewhere beyond but which may not really exist.
Berlin may well be where Christopher Rollen now lives, but it is to Gretna that he will forever return. It is that meagre wee town of which he sings in ‘Come Over’, but it is his town and one who’s essence and the Debatable Lands in which it lies he distils quite perfectly onto this finely crafted and beautifully weighted record.
The Debatable Land was released on Sea Records on 20th May 2013