Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Google+ Share on Reddit Share on Pinterest Share on Linkedin Share on Tumblr From its handsome vinyl releases, you might imagine that London’s Clay Pipe Music was operated by elves in a quaint English cottage. It is a labor of love run by Frances Castle, who in addition to handling PR, designs artwork that recalls woodcuts from another era. Clay Pipe specializes in a modern folk music that sounds and looks old-fashioned, and in a gentler universe, its latest release, Plaint of Lapwing, would be a hit record. As it is, the limited vinyl edition is nearly sold out. Scottish folk musician Alasdair Roberts collaborated with Sheffield musician James Green through quite untraditional means: email. Green proposed composing music for Roberts’ vocals on the harmoniflute, which the latter describes as “somewhere between a harmonium and an accordion.” Roberts emailed recordings of his disembodied voice to Green, who would add a strange and charming timbre that was a perfect fit for Roberts’ idiosyncratic tone. With expanded instrumentation, the fruits of this digital epistolary collaboration make for an enchanting album. The album begins with the idyllic “Anankë,” named for the mother of the Fates in Greek cosmology. It’s an unusual and utterly charming blend of timbres from breathy quality of the harmoniflute to an acoustic guitar figure based on a Bavarian folk song. Roberts sings in the unpretentious voice of a man who works the land with his hands: “Who is the threader of the needle/ And who is the architect of all our fates?” The arrangement seems both rich and simple, melodies weaving among delicate strings and keyboards. Roberts and Green’s gentle music evoke rebirth and decay, a place where seasons change and leaves turn color. “Peacock Strut,” whose melody comes from a traditional English song, sounds like a ballad you might hear in a production of Shakespeare, a medieval predecessor of XTC’s Skylarking. The waltz-like “At the Mid-hour of Night” is based on a Benjamin Britten setting of a poem by Dublin poet Thomas Moore. The romantic lyrics are grounded in an earthy music: “I sing the wild song it once was rapture to hear/ When our voices commingling breathed like one on the ear.” At any given moment you may feel you’ve fallen through a time warp and stumbled upon a band of merry troubadours—or their indie-folk equivalent. Typical of the album’s melodies is the hummable “If There is Any Light,” with Roberts’ thick accent calling to “The clay, the clay, the clay.” Roberts’ gorgeous acoustic guitar opens the wistful “The Evening is Growing Dim,” a song that he first recorded more than 10 years ago, but this spare version is light and effortless. The musicians reveal a dark side on “The Left-hand Man,” whose lyricist Timothy Neat is described as “an artist, writer, film-maker and beekeeper.” The narrative ballad is based on an ancient fair which includes a human sacrifice offered in exchange for fertility. The minor-key music is appropriately sinister, with organs suggesting an old-fashioned Wicker Man. Roberts’ guitar has a powerful effect on the listener. During a 2005 solo tour of the US, a woman clutching a bible approached him at an Oakland concert and declared, “the way you interacted with the wood — it was like Christ on the Cross.” This woman’s passion inspired the song, “Boy of Blazing Brew.” Roberts’ voice breaks at times, but this isn’t music for the perfectionist: it’s music that reveals the beauty in human imperfection and struggle. Plaint of Lapwing is a perfectly sequenced album whose pleasures are as light as its melodies and as dense as its sleeve notes. The title track is somewhat forbiddingly described as “a pseudo-alchemical song which posits a series of quasi-Manichean oppositions.” The intimidated listener would do well to file it under beautiful folk music, and enjoy.