For those listeners who are already fans of Scotch whisky, the album is a pleasant musical tour.
Whisky for Breakfast is an amiable album, not to be taken too seriously, about the pleasures of life as seen through the lens of whisky. Robin Laing’s songs all have something to do with whisky, but the thread is interpreted broadly, with celebrations of drinking but also history and a grand sense of place.
I’m told that the Scots have so many songs about whisky because they are, in fact, all love songs. I guess that would explain how a singer-songwriter could parlay a passion for whisky into a career as Scotland’s “Whisky Bard.”
Full disclosure: I’m a beer drinker. I agree that drinking is one of the pleasures of life but I was frankly dubious about an album entirely of whisky-related songs. And I was even more dubious about anyone who has fashioned a career around singing and writing solely about whisky. It lacks balance, and the people I know who lack balance around alcohol end up climbing into the bottle and taking a wrecking ball to their lives. From an album called Whisky for Breakfast I expected either an album full of drinking songs or a Scotch-whisky industry commercial.
I didn’t give Robin Laing enough credit. They say that one should write what one knows and Robin Laing clearly knows and loves whisky, the people who distill it (and occasionally the people who sell it), its history, and the land it comes from.
A previous reviewer called his voice “amiable”, and that’s a fair word for both Laing’s voice and his songs. Except for the bonus track, he wrote all the words and most of the music, except a few trad tunes. The arrangements are unobtrusive: vocals over backing guitar and drums, with a smattering of sax, fiddle, and keyboard. The songs are simple, but enjoyable, with varying styles and tempos and accents — and languages.
The songs’ connection to whiskey is usually overt, with titles like “Macallan”, and “Bruichladdich Dram”, not to mention “Special Sippin’ Whisky” and the title track. The unapologetic promotion of whisky drinking is honest but relentless. In “Bruichladdich Dram”, the lyrics suggest that whisky is the cure-all for life’s ups and downs: when you’re having a hard time, when you’re having a good time or romancing or homesick…
The history of distilling in Scotland provide the background for other songs including “Paul Campbell” (the trials of distilling illegal whisky); “Old Minmore” (the trials of distilling legal whisky); “Snuffed Out” (the misery of Prohibition); and “Loons is loons” (the unbearable temptation to the local people and birds of a whisky pipe that stretched across a public road in Rothes — a fun story). In a similarly fun but less factual story, Laing wrote new words to an old tune for “Wee Cooper o’Fife”.
The more subtly related songs like “Turquoise State of Mind” requires a note in the booklet to justify their place on the album (turquoise is the new corporate color of Bruichladdich). The lyrics of this particular song are competent enough, although they don’t stretch too far into poetry: “it’s the color of love, baby, protecting me” and, “…all the angels sitting around, in a turquoise frame of mind.”
I like “Talisker Bay” very much, as it describes spending a night on the beach on the bay from which Talisker whisky takes its name. I’m a sucker for songs about transcendence. It’s a fine song about those timeless moments one sometimes feels alone by the sea.
Similarly, the sound and words of “Macallan”(and the lovely fiddle) are more about the beauty of Scotland. The “Arran Dram” continues with the strong sense of place. For beer drinkers like me, the evocations of place are the best part of the lyrics.
The bonus track is the only one with lyrics not written by Laing. “Ein Letztes Glas” (i.e., “One Last Glass”) was written in German by Hans-Willi Ohl, and set to the tune of “Tak a Dram” by Ian Sinclair. Laing’s performance is gentle and sad, and a lovely parting note.
The balance in subjects that I worried about before hearing the album is borne out. If 16 songs extolling one type of drink in a row seem a bit much, you’ll be happier adding just one or two tracks on your playlist. On the other hand, if you are up for an entire album about Scotch whisky, the places where it is made and the people who make it, then Robin Laing is undoubtedly the right singer-songwriter to provide it.