Album Review – Karine Polwart

Karine Polwart – Karine Polwart’s Scottish Songbook (Hegri Music)

The covers album can be a tricky thing to get right. There are occasions where some artists seem to be so reliant on covers they can almost forget what made them so special when they started out with their own material (hello UB40 and Rod Stewart). Some are themed (I love the fact that k.d.lang, a non-smoker, did a whole album of songs about smoking called Drag) and some can be an interesting insight into how the act got where they are (Bowie’s Pin-Ups and Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Through The Looking Glass are excellent examples of this). Karine Polwart latest album sees her take eleven songs from the last fifty years of Scottish popular music, and the result is absolutely fantastic.

As Ms. Polwart explains in her own notes to the album (would that more musicians were articulate enough to do this), whilst she is known as a singer of traditional songs, she did grow up as a child to a soundtrack of Scottish pop. Last year saw an excellent exhibition of Scottish pop at the Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland, and this acted as the catalyst to a one-off gig, and now this album, eleven choices from the last fifty years of Scottish pop.

The album kicks off with her interpretation of The Waterboys’ ‘The Whole Of The Moon.’ Mike Scott. Right away, this version strips it down to the song. So, it remains anthemic, but most crucially, Roddy Lorimer’s trumpet solo has gone. And it works. It asks: what is the essence of the song about, not specifically a recording of a song?

The album runs a whole heap of emotions in this listener alone, so God only knows what it was like making it. Her cover of Frightened Rabbit’s ‘Swim Until You Can’t See Land’ maintains the beauty of the original, and is relentlessly stirring and optimistic. Yet to read the sleevenotes (well, more like beautiful stories) is to wipe away tears as she pays tribute to Frabbits’ lead singer, Scott Hutcheson, who sadly took his own life last year.

Oh yes, the writing. I suppose to describe this as a multimedia project would sound pretentious and curiously dated. But what she writes matters just as much as what she says. Another selection from the 1980s that is here is Big Country’s ‘Chance.’ If you only remember them for bagpipe-guitars and bombast, you missed this bittersweet beautiful ballad.

Don’t you know the words?

He came like a hero from the factory floor
With the sun and moon as gifts
But the only son you ever saw
Were the two he left you with
.”

As heartfelt and agonising as Abba’s ‘The Winner Takes It All,’ Karine writes about her own experiences at school, the girls who became pregnant before they were sixteen, those who grew up dealing with abuse. The song is poignant as it ever was, a million miles away from ‘One Great Thing’ or ‘In A Big Country.’ Moving in a different way is the sample of her Grandfather’s voice singing at the start of her version of ‘Since Yesterday,’ Strawberry Switchblade’s mid-80s smash.

Across its eleven tracks it really is a perfect sample of music, like a really concise side of a C-90 9fittingly, there’s one on the album cover). It stretches from the folky likes of John Martyn (‘Don’t Want To Know’) and the underrated gem that is Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Whatever’s Written In Your Heart.’ It takes in the aforementioned 80’s acts, to the more recent likes of Biffy Clyro and Chvrches, and of course Deacon Blue’s ‘Dignity.’ It takes precious little notice of what is hip, rather what is heritage. It closes with a wonderful cover of Ivor Cutler’s ‘Women Of The World’ which serves as both a warning and a celebration.

So a triumph, then. Not only is the album brilliant in its own right, but beautifully put together as a package, and presented in word as well as art, but it offers scope for discussion about the concept of song as well. Don’t question choices or offer suggestions, this is damn near perfect in its own existence. Respect is due.

****1/2

Karine Polwart’s Scottish Songbook is out now on Hegri Music.