Laws of Motion – Karine Polwart

Laws of Motion, folk music by the Karine Polwart Trio
Laws of Motion is an optimistic album. Karine Polwart, song meistress, with Steven Polwart her brother and Inge Thomson, acknowledges the rush, horror and separation of contemporary life, but offers up hope and positivity in the face of it.
BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer of the Year in 2018, Polwart is from Bannock in Stirlingshire and uses native vocabulary in the poetry which is her song lyrics: ‘hollers from the delta’ in Laws of Motion and the ‘skirl and moan’ of the wind in Cornerstone being just two examples. She alludes to earthquake and tempest, human cruelty and war, juxtaposing them with the silent night sky, gardens and remote islands.
Ophelia, the first song, named after the hurricane, is painted in a fiery palette: the red dust of the desert, the sun, blood and burning trees. In contrast, the plaintive, sweet vocals create a strong visual image of two people in reflective mood after an argument.
Laws of Motion, the title track, conjures up poignant images (‘babies wrapped in prayer shawls’) of exile and migration which was originally written with Martin Green for Flit, a multi-media project, in 2016. The images are disturbing but there are threads of love and life throughout and the music is matched to the melody with powerful, opening instrumental surges.
In I burn but I am not consumed it is refreshing to come across an original approach to Donald Trump‘s relationship with the Scottish soil. He was born on the Isle of Lewis and Polwart imagines what the ancient rocks would say about his behaviour, concluding that however powerful he thinks he is, he doesn’t command the elements. Here the spoken word is effectively interspersed with lines of harmonic melody, as later in Cassiopeia.
Suitcase, again written with Green, is about the kinder transport in which 10,000 Jewish children were brought to Britain for safety just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Using the repetition of words (‘heading for home’) and train-like rhythms, the hope this time is in the boy’s heart, not to actually get anywhere but to simply grow old. The final notes are spine tingling.
Cornerstone is a series of gentle tales of women and men who sit still. By listening to the birds, to the wind; by tending the candle and the lighthouse; these individuals serve their communities whilst quietly honouring nature. The opening and underlying drone, together with the final glockenspiel ‘bells’ and the harmony on’ and listen’, create echoes of the lonely landscape.
Matsuo’s Welcome to Muckhart opens with the beautiful line, ‘I was born on a jasmine wind’, harking back to her highly successful 2017 collection, A Pocket of Wind Resistance. Light bubbles of Japanese lotus and water lily are conjured with the tremble and pretty picking of guitar and wavering voice.
Young Man on a Mountain is about the Polwart grandfather who fought in the Battle of Cerere (Italy 1944) and also planted trees in Balquhidder. Using the lilt and sound of the spruce and pine, Polwart evokes the silence which her relative kept after the war, as well as the atmosphere of her homeland.
Crow on the cradle is Sydney Carter’s anti-war song using nursery rhymes in a chilling rumination on bringing a baby into a war-torn world. The Robin, which follows, is a simple retelling of how the robin got its red breast with angelic harmonies linking past and future in true folk tradition.
Finally, sparse piano opens Cassiopeia, which uses both ends of the telescope – stars through the velux window, nuclear explosion, the Big Bang and the advised list of 1979 household necessaries for 14 days in a fallout shelter. Sparkling runs and trills are used alongside the spoken word, reminiscent of Floret Silva Undique, Martyn Bennett’s setting of Hamish Henderson’s poem on the album Martyn Bennett.
In Laws of Motion, the album, Polwart asks what we are left with in the face of the terrible occurrences of our world, how to survive the horror of it all. She gives us this answer: be still and quiet, be thoughtful and take pleasure in the beauty of our natural environment. Together with haunting melodies and fascinating stories, these songs linger behind in the soul.

Karine Polwart – Light on the Shore

Karine Polwart performed at the Leith Theatre as part of the Edinburgh International Festival on 17th Aug 2018.

A concert by turns melancholy and joyous, Karine Polwart’s Scottish Songbook  is a smorgasbord of Scottish pop anthems to shed a tear or sing along to. Leith Theatre does her proud with its elegant semi-circular balcony and spacious standing area. It has received a once-over for the Light on the Shore series at the Edinburgh International Festival, looking very different from its outing for Hidden Door in May.

Karine Polwart, Scottish Songbook, Leith Theatre EIF
Karine Polwart and her band at leith Theatre – Light in the Shore EIF Aug 2018

The beams of bright peacock lights illuminate the wee lassie from Banknock in Stirlingshire with her whispy pixie hair and direct gaze as she stands amongst her band (including brother, Steven) and beside Inge Thomson.

With a slowly swaying, tentative start, Polwart sings, “You know how it feels to reach too far, too hard, too soon, you saw the whole of the moon”, originally a Waterboys tune. The suffused blue wash hints at starlight and the crowd show huge appreciation from the off.

She regales us with stories about the song’s origins, confident anecdotes. “You can hear the recent Chvrches (sic) song in the lavvies at the service station between Edinburgh and Glasgow.” Drumsticks herald a change to a brisk, syncopated beat, and we’re regaled with The Mother We Share while she plays the tambourine, that and the shawl revealing her folk roots.

Karine Polwart 2

After the audience participation where we are asked to cheer for one of two questions linking music to football, we move to the rock classic So Good To be Back Home by the Tourists and a little bit of hip action as Polwart bops along. We la laa to Strawberry Switchblade’s Since Yesterday as Polwart makes figures of eight with her hand looking like she is really enjoying herself, gesturing for us to join in. Somewhere in My Heart by Aztec Camera comes after, “a slice of pop performance”. For some reason the audience don’t dance – just a toe tap here and there. She dedicates The Machines to babysitters everywhere without whom “we would be at home”.

Best known as a singer songwriter, Polwart’s highly acclaimed A Pocket of Wind Resistance is something quite different from singing these covers, however familiar they are.

Party Feels Two is performed by another member of the band and is a highlight, Polwart humbly accompanying him. There is a gentle pensive ending to the otherwise raucous From Rags to Riches. I Don’t Want to Know is beautifully balanced; and the first half ends with the spacy sounding Teardrop, more of an atmosphere than a song.

Coming back in after the interval there’s the sweet smell of hot bodies and the band start with another sad song, Chance from Big Country. Still not dancing! Thomson sings Mary’s Prayer in her high pitched voice; Two retro numbers, I Could Be Happy (for clapping along to); and Here Comes the Rain are next; as it was the day the great Aretha Franklin died (16 Aug 2018), she was honoured by the accapella Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves; fittingly followed by Women of the World – the choir swells and the drone drones with a churchy feel; Gerry Rafferty, in a pure full voice, is dedicated to their parents; to end there is a medley including KT Tunstall, Dignity by Deacon Blue and ending with Sunshine on Leith (Proclaimers). Well she had to really – It went down a storm!