This release is definitely one to treasure. An absolute gem.
A Pocket Of Wind Resistance perhaps isn't to be regarded a new Karine Polwart album in the conventional sense. Rather, it's a "journey for the ears", a studio realisation arising from her theatrical show of that title premièred at last year's Edinburgh Festival (and subsequently widely acclaimed). A companion to that show, then, rather than an attempt to recapture it. The special project took its initial inspiration from Karine's observation of the wonder of the annual migration of 2,000 pink-footed geese to Fala Flow (an area of peat bog close to her home), an experience which sparked off a series of meditations on the ways human beings protect both each other and themselves and (by extension) all life, and in turn can be seen to provide a role-model for a survival strategy for humankind (if only we could see it).
A Pocket Of Wind Resistance employs a fascinating and fluid approach to storytelling by assimilating into one brilliantly atmospheric tapestry songs (both traditional/composed and originals by Karine herself) and evocative spoken-word and natural sounds. This has been created in collaboration with sound designer Pippa Murphy, whose hypnotic ambient collages enable Karine to express more fully her vitally important message to humankind. Of course, Karine's no stranger to the idea of combining music and art with science, environment and politics - previous ventures have included The Darwin Song Project, Sea Change and Songs Of Separation - but this is the most complete realisation yet of Karine's personal thesis on the fragile relationship and increasing push-pull tension between the human and natural worlds. Here she voices her real concerns for the environment, while showing herself to be as much in sympathy with people as with places, drawing on her own experience of childbirth and the ongoing struggles of successive generations of women. Her creativity is given full rein on this ambitious, 56-minute sequence; although it plays continuously, it consists of 14 defined sections, and while each of these has a strong impact in its own right the unfolding continuous overall narrative - the interwoven story of Roberta and Will Sime, parents of Karine's neighbour Molly Kristensen - also has an intensely powerful cumulative effect.
So often this kind of project, however well-intentioned, will produce a rather disjointed, disunified end-result that all too frequently calls undue attention to its own technical achievements and audio gimmicks and as a consequence satisfies neither incidental listening nor repeated exposure - but this is emphatically not the case with Karine and Pippa's creation, where the standard and method of integration of the various elements is magic - so thoughtfully imagined by the team and expertly engineered (by Stuart Hamilton). Attention to detail is telling throughout, too - one instance is in the incorporated bird sounds, which are both correct and authentic, from the pink-footed geese themselves (who provide a soundtrack for key sections Labouring And Resting and Remember The Geese) to other, more incidental bird-calls (eg skylark, red grouse), wing-beats, and other ambient natural sounds. No place here for the trite cueing-in of the sound of a Lark In The Clear Air! - instead all that is needed for that rendition is Karine's lithe vocal and skipsome sansula to convey the feeling of joyous expansiveness that a walk on the moor provides.
In addition, there's pure genius in the way Karine's own spoken links, reminiscences and ruminations arise organically out of - and flow back into - the musical element, most especially the songs. For instance, check out Small Consolation, where an account of the death of a fledgling swallow witnessed by Roberta as she prepares for her own impending motherhood, sparks off the incorporation of Karine's earlier song Faultlines to reinforce the message of the fragility of life and our desire to protect and sustain it. A Benediction embeds an echo of another early song Rivers Run, while Tyrannic Man's Dominion interpolates Karine's magnificent account of Burns' Now Westlin Winds (A Song Written In August), one of the earliest articulations in Scottish literature of the principle of deep ecology. The universal pain of love, grief and loss are expressed intensely yet intimately on Sphagnum Moss For A Dead Queen, which is built around Karine's fiery rendition of the ballad The Death Of Queen Jane; this forms a central panel for what might be termed the show's childbirth triptych, sparked off by Karine's own experience (White Old Woman Of The Night) and culminating in reflections on maternal mortality (Lullaby For A Lost Mother). This sequence is quite overwhelming in its impact, whatever our own direct or indirect experience.
Instrumental backing is simple and effective, both uncluttered and gently layered: essentially comprising Karine's own acoustic guitar (and Indian harmonium, sansula and synth), with the judicious additional deployment of Corrina Hewat (harp), Calum McIntyre (percussion, glockenspiel, marimba) and Kevin McGuire (bass). Sandra Mackay and Kate Young provide limited additional vocal contributions.
Although on paper A Pocket Of Wind Resistance may sound a rather daunting and challenging prospect, it's impossible not to respond to this immensely stimulating work in some way - whether in its beautifully coordinated stream-of-consciousness ebb and flow of integrated thought and music, or in its powerful emotional impact and comfortingly close network of cross-resonances. Above all, perhaps, in reinforcing Karine's own "visceral closeness" to those who have gone before, it serves as a strong and necessarily timely wake-up call to us all. It's truly a work of unique vision: sheer poetry, and very compelling listening indeed. And, being beautifully presented and packaged too, with sublime artwork and design, this release is definitely one to treasure. An absolute gem.