Saturday, 6 October 2012

Karine Polwart - Traces (Album Review 2012)

Karine Polwart - Traces

There are many folk musicians who are ever-present yet go about their trade largely unnoticed (except maybe not to a group of hardened fans). Karine Polwart has been in and out of bands (and currently a member of The Burns Unit with Emma Pollock and King Creosote), as well as collaborating with other solo artists, including Idlewild's Roddy Woomble, but it is her own solo work which is her most engaging; none more so than her latest album Traces. Polwart's début Faultlines won her two BBC Radio 2 folk awards and unlike this, the darker follow-up Scribbled In Chalk, and the traditional Fairest Floo'er, Traces is an exquisite collection of bitter-sweet songs from the beautiful recollections of childhood to tales of relationships and family, love, loss and memories.

Through the simple acoustic delivery is an ethereal production, evident from opener Cover Your Eyes, deftly blending Polwart's Stirlingshire vocals (think Amy MacDonald sings Kate Rusby) with grand flourishes of strings and percussion to convey the feel of weather, unforgiving coastlines and a valued dune ecosystem. "Not even God himself could stop the Northerlies from blowing" is just wonderful imagery and every song on Traces immediately paints pictures in the listeners' minds at every opportunity - as great storytelling should. An early highlight is the charming and poignant Don't Worry, highlighting the plight of fighting men and women: "When the soldier comes back, with the weight of the world in his little knapsack... He's gonna need a hand to ease out the thorns from the heart of his soul" is superb songwriting and heart-breaking narrative. This is followed by the equally emotive and stirring We're All Leaving, about growing up, finding your own way and moving on. The song builds elegantly to a controlled dramatic climax.

More great moments are scattered throughout Traces like gold dust: the wordless vocals of King Of Birds, more stirring tales of family, memories and growing up with loss: Strange News ("And the mother does just what she must and the father comes undone; in the not-yet-snow we wave and shout 'hello' a morning sun"), complete with a gorgeous central vocal and Inge Thomson's perfect accordion, and the slow-building darkness and drama of Tears For Lot's Wife is perfectly arranged and shows the talents of the wonderful band, including Polwart's brother Steven; all excellent at every turn. The magical Tinsel Show adds more youthful nostalgia.

Into the final trilogy, Sticks 'n' Stones is a slow-burning relocation of leaving behind a treasured family home with more brilliant word-smithery: "Inch-lines on door frames, and thumb-prints on window panes...scars where the bed stood and names scored on old wood  ...and our dreams in the rafters, secrets in timbers... and hopes in the plasterboard" is interspersed with stark cold 'empty' accordion to complete the juxtaposition. Salters Road is probably the album highlight and easily Polwart's best vocal of her career, let alone the album - a simply beautiful and heart-wrenching tale of two distant lovers set to the backdrop of the atmospheric Scottish landscape. Closer Half A Mile, is a close second for album highlight, as it takes the most awful of subjects - that of abduction and murder - and with a perfectly-judged and brave delivery, turns it into a moving tribute. "You were high on being alone... You were high on being old enough to walk home...for the first time", the final part repeated twice, as the terrible tale unfolds. "And the trucks still roll by..." forms an emotional end.

Traces is Karine Polwart at her best; direct and honest folk songwriting with an added 'sheen' thanks to a brilliant supporting band and expert-touch production. This is a great modern folk album,  Polwart's voice shining with its own personality, truth and starry-eyed emotion, and the stories and characters are brought to life through the songs.
-- CS

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