sat 07/12/2019

CD: Karine Polwart - Karine Polwart's Scottish Songbook | reviews, news & interviews

CD: Karine Polwart - Karine Polwart's Scottish Songbook

CD: Karine Polwart - Karine Polwart's Scottish Songbook

Scottish folk musician reinterprets classic and contemporary songs from her native land

A love letter to Scottish songwriting by Karine Polwart

As a recent exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland showed, attempting to tell the history of Scottish popular music in an afternoon – or on one single album – is no mean feat. Though Karine Polwart’s Scottish Songbook covers project spans time and genre, from Big Country to Biffy Clyro, her choices are thematically linked by what they say about Scotland both now and in the past, and made into a coherent whole thanks to the folk musician’s skill for taking ownership of the traditional.

The out-of-context cover has long been a staple of rock shows (and Radio 1’s Live Lounge), but Polwart’s focus isn’t as narrow as simply channelling an unexpectedly familiar chorus through an acoustic-folk lens. Her reinterpretations attempt to provide context to the originals: hence, Ivor Cutler's satirical dirge with Linda Hirst, “Women of the World”, becomes a gender-flipped passing of the torch; while the addition of an old tape recording of Polwart’s grandfather to her version of Strawberry Switchblade’s "Since Yesterday” transforms the original’s perky melancholy into a gut-punch directed at the very particular grief triggered by the loss of a loved one to dementia.

An uplifting, relatively faithful version of Frightened Rabbit’s “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” – emerging mere weeks after an album’s worth of reworking of Scott Hutchison’s lyrics – is of particular resonance, while gorgeous covers of Biffy Clyro’s “Machines” and Chvrches’ “The Mother We Share” similarly emphasise the melodic gifts of Scotland’s contemporary songwriters across the spectrum of rock to electro-pop.

Polwart’s version of “The Whole of the Moon” is an unexpected treat: a fairground twinkle of a reworking that sounds nothing like its source, yet triggers the same involuntary smile every time I hear it as when I fell in love with The Waterboys’ original as a teenager. Her takes on “Dignity” and Gerry Rafferty’s “Whatever’s Written in Your Heart” tread a little close to saccharine – as, some might say, do the originals – but this is a beautiful and big-hearted love letter to Scottish songwriting of all genres.

Lisa-Marie Ferla's website

Below: hear Karine Polwart's take on "The Whole of The Moon" by The Waterboys

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