Karine Polwart is something of a rarity in an age where anodyne, bland and uncontroversial music fills our airwaves and record shops. Her music isn’t just intelligent, articulate and socially relevant, it’s also melodic and beautiful. She’s a storyteller who gives a voice to the downtrodden, disenfranchised, impoverished and vulnerable, and in doing so, empathizes with their plight. Telling their story with a mixture of anger, frustration, passion and tenderness, Karine brings her lyrics to life. These lyrics are people’s stories, which Karine has discovered and shares with her audience. That’s why Karine Polwart is an award-winning folk singer, whose fifth album Traces which was released on Hegri Music, has been short-listed for 2012s Scottish Album Of The Year Award. Traces features ten songs, which are akin to short stories. Using a rich and colorful musical palette, Karine Polwart paints musical pictures that come to life before your eyes. Before I tell you about Traces, I’ll tell you about Karine Polwart’s career so far.
Before embarking on her musical career, Karine Polwart studied politics and philosophy at university. On graduating, Karine worked in women’s and children’s rights. However, what she really wanted to do, was make a career out of music. For Karine, she didn’t make this decision lightly. What swung it for her, was that she felt through music, life somehow, made sense. Not only that, Karine felt that through music, she could “perform some important social function.” It did. It allowed Karine to tell people’s stories of the situations, adversity and obstacles they had to overcome.
Having decided to make a career in music, Karine’s debut album made a huge impression. Faultlines, released in 2005, won three albums at the BBC Folk Awards. This included Best Album. Then in 2005, the live Pulling Through E.P. was released. This allowed people a tantalizing taste of what Karine sounded like live. Karine’s sophomore album, 2006s Scribbled In Chalk featured Daisy, which won the BBC Folk Award For Best Original Song. Just two albums into her career, and Karine Polwart’s decision to embark upon a musical career had been vindicated.
2007 saw Karine release the third album of her career. Fairest Floo’er was a combination of folk and Scottish traditional songs. A year later, in 2008, Karine released This Earthly Spell, her fourth album. Her reputation was growing with each release. She was being hailed as one of Britain’s finest folk singers, both on record and live. Proof of how good a live act Karine and her band were, was 2009s Build Your Own Cathedral E.P.
In 2010, Karine put her musical career on hold, when she went on maternity leave. Before that, Side Show-The Burns Unit album and the Evergreen E.P. were released. On the Lau Vs. Karine Palwart Evergreen E.P., Karine hooked up with a band who coincidentally, are on the long-list for 2012s Scottish Album Of The Year Award. This would be the last that would be heard of Karine Polwart until 2011. However, it would 2012 before Karine Polwart released another album, Traces.
Traces was Katine’s fifth studio album, which was released in 2012. Released to critical acclaim, fans and critics alike decided Karine was back with the best album of her career. Not only was Traces nominated for three awards in the BBC Folk Awards, but it was hailed the Guardian’s Folk Album of 2012. The Herald went one better, crowning Traces as the best Scottish album of 2012. That’s quite an accolade. Will Traces surpass that by winning 2012s Scottish Album Of The Year Award? That’s what I’ll tell you, once I’ve told you about the music on Traces.
Opening Traces is Cover Your Eyes, a quite beautiful, understated song about teenage romance. With just acoustic guitar accompanying her, Karine paints pictures of about the innocent adventures she and her boyfriend used to have. Lyrics like: “I was Farah Fawcett, you were Steve McQueen, and we rode your silver grifter, half way to Aberdeen.” Evocative pictures are painted, and scenes unfold. It’s like a film being played out before your eyes. Later, her description of the landscape is particularly poignant, given how it has been destroyed to make way for a golf-course. Filled with pathos, poignant, beautiful and melancholy, it’s the perfect way to open Traces.
There’s a real wistful sound as King Of Bird, a song that tells a story in three parts. The song is about St. Paul’s Cathedral, London and is set against the Fire of London, The Blitz and The City of London. Acoustic guitar, fiddle and keyboards accompany Karina’s heartfelt vocal. She delivers the evocative lyrics with passion. If you close your eyes, you can smell the smoke of the fire, picture the chaos of the blitz. When Karine delivers the lyric “mirrors that bruise the sky,” that’s the perfect description of the garish architectural monstrosities. Having delivered that line, Karina scats, with the band accompanying her. You’re left feeling pensive, marvelling at Karine’s articulate, literate lyrics.
Tears For Lot’s Wife was adapted from Anna Akhamatova’s poem. Just a meandering acoustic guitar sets the scene for Karine’s vocal. Harmonies envelop her, while piano and percussion accompany her. As the drama grows, Karina paints vivid but heartbreaking pictures. You hope against hope that she turns back, but fear that she’s too determined and principled. That makes the lyrics: “whose gonna mourn, one woman in a storm,” even more poignant, powerful and even disturbing.
Don’t Worry is about a soldier returning home, and the problems he has. The understated arrangement allows you to focus on Karina’s vocal. She’s accompanied by just an acoustic guitar as she sings: “when the soldier comes back, with the weight of the world in his knapsack, he’s gonna need a little hand.” This paints a powerful picture. Immediately, you wonder what horrors and atrocities he’s seen? His partner is desperate, vowing to trade anything to have make him better and “set him free.” This brings to life the sheer desperation of his partner.
We’re All Leaving demonstrates just how diverse the subject matter Karine uses for inspiration for her song. Here, she uses the death of Charles Darwin’s daughter Annie for inspiration. Just acoustic guitar, harmonies, percussion and accordion provide a backdrop for Anna. Her vocal is emotive, filled with sadness and resignation as she delivers the lyric: “he has no ark to bear him from his flood.” This is a particularly poignant lyric, given Darwin was an avowed atheist. The most heartbreaking lyric is the one that describes Darwin and his wife approaching the church door, and how after, a helpless and bereft Darwin: “walks these woods alone.” A stark and deeply portrayal of a heartrending situation.
Tinsel Show is about how the petrochemical plant near where Karine grew up. With just acoustic guitar, drums and keyboards, the memories come flooding back. Karine’s vocal grows in power at the memory of the lights and fumes that dominated the landscape around Grangemouth. Despite this, the lights reminded Karine of disco lights, diamonds and flying saucers. Seen through a child’s eyes, there’s beauty in even the most grotesque industrial landscape. Equally beautiful are the ethereal and angelic harmonies that reach an elegant crescendo. It’s a fitting way to close Karine’s beautiful, evocative walk down memory lane.
Strange News is a song everyone can relate to. It was inspired by the tragic and sudden death of his cousin’s wife. She’d died far too young. The thing anyone asks themselves is why? That’s the unanswerable question that neither reason nor religion can answer. With just her trusty guitar, fiddle and later, accordion for company, Karine remembers times and places. She remembers where she was when she heard the news, and the reminisces about things they’d done and been together. One of the most heartbreaking pictures she paints is of the stoic mother, trying to put a brave face on it, despite her heartbreak. Anguish and the realization life will never be the same shine through, as Karine delivers one of her best vocals of some incredibly moving, but beautiful lyrics.
Just the mournful, emotive sound of an accordion opens Sticks ‘n’ Stones. Having set the scene for Karine’s vocal, she delivers a slow, pensive vocal. The reason for her melancholia is having decided to visit the now empty house she once lived in. Memories come flooding back, when things were simpler and her dreams were intact. Harmonies, a flute, drums and accordion accompany cascading harmonies. Along with a trumpet, they create a mournful, melancholy backdrop. You wonder why? Sadly we never find out, but maybe, the Sticks ‘n’ Stones Karine sings about are a clue?
Salters Road was written to celebrate the life of Karine’s neighbor Molly Kristensen. Karine delivers an impassioned and heartfelt vocal, as she tells the story of her life. Accompanying her are a subtle backdrop of piano, guitar and celestial harmonies. So clear is the picture Karine paints, you can imagine scenes unfolding. You can see Molly walking down Salters Road, the sun shining and her waiting for her boyfriend. It’s evocative, beautiful, melancholy and much, much more. It demonstrates Karine talents as a singer, lyricist and storyteller.
Closing Traces is Half A Mile. Although the song features lyrics that veer between beautiful and heartbreaking. Articulate and expressive lyrics, there’s an inherent sadness in the song. The song pays tribute to a young girl who was abducted and tells of the search for her. From the opening bars, there’s a sense of melancholia. Just Karine’s pensive vocal and her acoustic guitar, before booming drums add to a dramatic contrast. As Karine poses a series of questions. What was she doing, where was taken from, was she singing? To all these questions, there’s no answer. All that’s known is that Susan had only Half A Mile to walk until she was home.
Although Karine Polwart’s fifth album Traces, is quite different to many of the albums on the long-list for 2012s Scottish Album Of The Year Award, it’s deserving of its place. Indeed, Traces is in the minority, given it’s a folk album. However, if you’re only going to have one folk album, make it one as good as Traces. The ten tracks on Traces feature some of the most articulate, poignant and evocative lyrics. Taking her inspiration from a diverse range of subjects, Karine proceeds to paint pictures. Using a rich and colorful musical palette, Karine introduces you to a series of characters and their lives. Tragedy, desperation, pathos and joy feature in the songs. Articulate and cerebral, Karine gives a voice to the downtrodden, disenfranchised, impoverished and vulnerable. She empathizes with their plight, telling their story with a mixture of anger, frustration, passion and tenderness. In doing this, Karine tugs at your heartstrings, makes you think, stirs your emotions and makes you ask why? You experience sadness, melancholy, anger, frustration and heartbreak. Not many artists can achieve this through their music. Karine Polwart can, and does with Traces. Quite simply, Karine Polwart’s Traces is one of the best Scottish albums of 2012. Traces which was released on Hegri Music, should be one of the contenders for the Scottish Album Of The Year. However, are the judges brave enough to award a folk album, like Karine Polwart’s Traces, 2012s Scottish Album Of The Year? Standout Tracks: Cover Your Eyes, We’re All Leaving, Tinsel Show and Strange News.