Mention of folk music almost inevitably leads to discussion of protest songs with the folk form almost exclusively linked to the notion of expressing political or social concerns in song. On this latest release from Karine Polwart, doyen of Scots folk singers, the first two songs certainly fit the bill. Cover Your Eyes rails against the capitulation of Aberdeen’s finest in allowing media mogul millionaire Donald Trump (he of the hair) to trample over local opposition and despoil an area of natural beauty.
Fittingly Polwart invokes here the power of nature to achieve a vengeance of sorts. With a cold beauty it makes its point without haranguing the listener. King Of Birds which follows is a hymn to the Occupy protesters who camped outside St. Paul’s Cathedral. Here Polwart utilises metaphor with the titular king of birds, the wren, representing the architect. A powerful song it grows in stature as it progresses thanks to the wonderful production by Iain Cook and ultimately it becomes a song of hope. Throughout the album Cook manages layers of sound, understated mild electronica and pulses of traditional instruments which ebb and flow under Polwart’s faultless voice which has a comforting Scottish burr.
Despite the pointed message of the opening songs much of the album is derived from Polwart’s pesonal story, writing about her upbringing in Falkirk on Tinsel Show and the devastation of the death of a cousin on Strange News, a simple stark tale with sombre backing and ethereal vocals. She sings about her elderly neighbour on Salters Road, painting a simple life and capturing it in miniature with evocative place names while the sombre brass band backing tugs nostalgically.
An album to be savoured, mulled over late at night with the beautiful melody and voices on a song like Tears For Lot’s Wife comforting and shivering at the same time Traces places Polwart at the forefront of contemporary Scottish folk music. She closes the album with another song that belongs to her own story but this time dredged from many years ago. Half A Mile is about the kidnapping and murder of a young girl 30 years ago. A contemporary of Polwart she lived only a few miles away and Polwart paints a vivid picture of the innocence of youth and the alarm raised after the event. Chilling in its execution with dramatic use of percussion it’s a powerful song. A bitter end to a fine album but in its way a commemoration of, as Polwart says “the kinds of love and longing and loss that shape all of our lives.”
Finally mention must be made of what might possibly be the best opening lines of an album this year…
I was Farrah Fawcett
You were Steve McQueen
And we rode your silver Grifter half the way from Aberdeen.
Originally published in Blabber'n'Smoke