Monday 15 October 2012
The current Scottish folk renaissance has centred on inventive instrumentalists who can switch easily between genres, and Karine Polwart has brought the same sense of the unexpected to her songwriting. She's a cool, thoughtful singer who is remarkable mostly for her lyrics, her ability to mix stories and memories with a sometimes epic sense of time and history, and flashes of anger.
She started with Cover Your Eyes, a drifting piece that developed into a furious attack on Donald Trump's controversial golf development on the Aberdeenshire coast, and ended with the threat that the haar, the Scottish sea mist, will take its revenge. Then she moved on to songs about death, with Strange News examining her thoughts on the passing of a young cousin, followed later by We're All Leaving, a song she contributed to the Darwin song project, which considered the impact of his daughter's death on Charles Darwin's work. Then there were stories of nature and childhood, and an epic history of St Paul's Cathedral in London, inspired by the Occupy movement.
The least memorable songs were the most conventional. Five More Sleeps deals with her time on tour, talking to her young children on Skype, while her finale was a cheerfully unlikely treatment of Billy Bragg's A New England, with ukulele backing from her brother Steven.
On her new album, Traces, some songs were marred by over-lush production work, but here Polwart was backed by her own Indian harmonium and guitar, and her sympathetic four-piece band that included exquisite backing vocals and accordion from Fair islander Inge Thomson. Her one solo piece proved that she has the potential to become another Scottish folk celebrity.