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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.

Happy Birthday Ice Cream

Yes indeed.

I have now been writing 17 Seconds for thirteen years, which for people who love numbers means I have been writing it for a quarter of my life.

And my passion for music has not diminished, even if working life means that I am a lot more tired and less able to write it as often as I might like. Also, I am somewhat perplexed by the records that seem to be really popular these days…and the ones that don’t seem to be hits which I think should be.

In my world, this awesome track would have been no.1 for several weeks already, yet it hasn’t even entered the Top 100. Ladies and Gentlemen, if you still haven’t heard it ‘Salted Caramel Ice Cream’ by Metronomy. My song of the summer.

Album Review – Ardentjohn

Ardentjohn – ‘Malin Head.’ (Adulation)

So, it’s technically summer, although in the British Isles, that’s always a bit of a gamble if you’re hoping to get decent weather. Still it gives us something to talk about, right? And while Metronomy may have delivered the track of the summer in ‘Salted Caramel Ice Cream,’ before long, the nights will be noticeably drawing in, and it will need a suitable soundtrack of Scottish melancholia.

Well, never fear, your next dose of magnificent Scottish melancholia is here. Opening with ‘Magic Everywhere’ the soundtrack is bittersweet, that feeling that things are coming to an end, or at least, not standing still, as long as you might like. And all you can do is revel in the beauty of the sunset, or you might cry. Well, hell, you might just cry anyway. It’s been a long day.

The strength of the opener is such that the title track and ‘I Wasn’t There’ (the latter with a Doves meets Coral feel, for those of you who can still remember 2002), can take a few listens before they gel as much. But like many great albums, this is one where repeated listens reap the benefits within.

Comparisons with Mogwai might not immediately be accurate or entirely spot on, but the ‘gwai can capture an emotion in a way that has a similar feel to this record. And it’s that feel that is also evident in the likes of Frightened Rabbit (sigh), The Blue Nile or Meursault. It’s those acts that show the power of sadness and somehow make it a truly beautiful thing. This is evidenced on tracks like ‘Longing To Fly’ with its repeated refrain of ‘no I won’t be afraid.’ Sometimes it’s all so, well, pretty, like on ‘Daydreaming.’ It’s just such an impressive whole as an album.

Spend forty-five minutes with this album, and the chances are those minutes will be repeated many times over…

****

Malin Head is released by Adulation on July 12.

Album review – Hackney Colliery Band

Hackney Colliery Band – Collaborations: Volume One

It’s now twenty years since the Fast Show with its mockery of the jazz scene ‘Niiiice.’ etc etc. But if that’s affecting how you view jazz, never mind or listen to it, then you need to get a different take on it.

Of course, the big name over the last twelve months has been Kamasi Washington, whose album Heaven And Earth did well in the rock press end of year polls, and there’s been a fair bit of focus on British jazz groups too – Sons Of Kemet and Ezra Collective- that makes it seem jazz is being covered in a way not seen since Courtney Pine released his acclaimed Journey To The Urge Within.

So let’s focus on the Hackney Colliery Band. This year they made their Glastonbury debut and celebrate their tenth anniversary. This album is an exciting mix of jazz styles that is accessible and welcoming, without ever stopping being special.

The first music to do the rounds was the single ‘Netsanet’ featuring Mulatu Astatke. This is an exploration of Mulatu’s trademark Ethio-jazz, which he pretty much invented. The album opens with ‘Mm Mm’ featuring Angélique Kidjo, who was once described as Africa’s premier diva.

The longest track within is ‘Climbing Up My Own Life Until I Die.’ A spoken word collaboration it can be extremely hard work (this listener would prefer it as an instrumental), but it still fits into the album.

Sure there have been Nirvana and Prodigy covers in the past, but this sees the Hackney Colliery Band step into the light, with collaborations but no compromise. A thrill from start to finish.

Collaborations Volume One is out now

Forthcoming from Karine Polwart

Karine Polwart will release her new album Karine Polwart’s Scottish Songbook on August 2. The album features eleven songs which were written by Scottish artists performed in her own style.

While she’s generally considered to work in a folk idiom, these songs generally come from the rock scene over the last fifty years (though Gerry Rafferty and John Martyn would be considered to have had a connection with the folk scene). The album tracklisting is as follows:

The Whole Of The Moon (originally performed by The Waterboys)

From Rags To Riches (The Blue Nile)

Dignity (Deacon Blue)

Since Yesterday (Strawberry Switchblade)

Swim Until You Can’t See Land (Frightened Rabbit)

Chance (Big Country)

The Mother We Share (Chvrches)

Don’t Want To Know (John Martyn)

Whatever’s Written In Your Heart (Gerry Rafferty)

Machines (Biffy Clyro)

Women Of The World (Ivor Cutler)

The album was recorded at Chem 19, the studio owned and operated by the Delgados, where numerous Scottish artists (and firm favourites of 17 Seconds), including the likes of Franz Ferdinand, Mogwai and Arab Strap have recorded.

There will also be live dates around November:

14 November ABERDEEN Music Hall
15 November PERTH Concert Hall
16 November EDINBURGH Usher Hall
27 November LONDON Barbican

Some of the tracks are available to listen to already:

‘Women Of The World’ by Ivor Cutler has been covered by other artists including YACHT and Jim O’ Rourke.

‘Dignity’ by Deacon Blue is one of those songs that has become a classic, despite only being a small hit at the time. The album artwork references their debut, Raintown.

The album opens with Karine’s version of the Waterboys ‘The Whole Of The Moon.’ Radically different from theirs (no trumpets here), the prettiness of the essence of the song comes through.

Finally, Big Country’s heartbreaking ‘Chance’ is handled gently, dealing with concerns that are still very vivid in the minds of many people in this part of the world.

Gig review – Lauren MacColl

Photo credit: Somhairle MacDonald

Lauren MacColl – Edinburgh Queen’s Hall, June 26, 2019

There’s been some brilliant folk music that’s been played over at 17 Seconds Towers over the last wee while, but the two outstanding albums are Jenna Reid’s Working Hands, and Lauren MacColl’s The Seer.

The latter is a ten-track album that is music based on the life and prophecies of the Brahan Seer. Known as Coinneach Odhar or Kenneth Mackenzie, his prophecies may have been strange, but they included the Highland Clearances, the Caledonan Canal and Culloden (the last battle fought on British Soil). While there are those who question whether he existed at all, there are others who see him as Scotland’s Nostradamus.

Lauren MacColl has written this album, which draws on ancient legend and Scots fiddle playing, and tonight delivers it to a delighted crowd, to present us with something that feels fresh and current. No aural tartan tat here. As well as her accomplished fiddle, she is joined by Mairearad Greeb (accordion, pipes), Megan Henderson (fiddle, piano, vocals), Signy Jakobsdottir (percussion), Anna Massie (guitar) and Rachel Newton (harp, viola, vocals).

The album is a beautiful recording, but live the forty five minutes and ten songs become something else. There’s striking imagery courtesy of Somhairle MacDonald, but the intensity and sheer connection between the six musicians on stage is something not just to hear but to see. It very much stands as a piece in its own right, but the final two pieces ‘An Unkindness Of Ravens’ and ‘Lady Isabella’ are stunningly beautiful. Theres no wish to make notes on what’s happening, but instead just to listen and appreciate it. The standing ovation was utterly deserved, and I’ve played the album every day since…

Album Review – Meursault

Meursault – ‘Crow Hill.’ (Common Grounds Records)

On his latest album, Neil Pennycook recites the phone book for forty-five minutes and takes us the listeners on an emotional rollercoaster.

Ok, a slight exaggeration, but there’s something about this act that really does pull you in grab and hold of you emotionally. Over five albums and now more than a decade, the music has developed but the essence of what made Meursault so compelling remains. It connects with that epic Scottish melancholy that goes back centuries (and no doubt will go forward that way, too). At times it surges and becomes unashamedly anthemic, as well as freaking out 17 Seconds Towers’ cat (who is quite jumpy at the best of times, but I’ve never witnessed an album impacting on him like this before, either).

It’s a loosely conceptual album, thankfully not excessively, prog-rock like. Twelve songs that take place over a single day in the fictional town of Crow Hill. The second track ‘Strong-armed Son’ encapsulates what the whole album sounds like, bringing together the gamut of emotions that occur over the whole album, building to a massive climax.

A few years back, I saw Neil supporting Lift To Experience where he played his version of ‘I Heard My Mother Praying For Me’ by Hank Williams. In the hands of Neil and co. it feels like a hymn, as does ‘Nekhla Dog.’ This review’s taken a while to write as I had to try and get into the album and get beneath it, but each successive listen (and there have been quite a few, believe me) show that this is one of their strongest records yet.

So on the second album ‘back’ (and fifth in total) Neil and co. are back doing what they do best. When Neil quit basketball to become a songwriter it was sports’ loss but music’s gain, and I think he’d do well at writing a novel or soundtracking a film on this evidence.

Crow Hill is out now on Common Grounds Records