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KARINE POLWART Fairest Floo’er

KARINE POLWART  Fairest Floo’er
Hegri Music  HEGRICD03

This is a confident return to traditional song by Karine Polwart, following her earlier work with Malinky, The Battlefield Band, and Dr Fred Freeman’s Burns project.  Her performance of these nine songs is at one with her own songs on Faultlines and Scribbled In Chalk: a profound empathy with the characters and their suffering is conveyed through intimate, finely nuanced singing and impeccable musical arrangements.  The accent is broader Scots, the words are older, but the singer’s rare sensibility is unchanged.
We have sunlit interludes in Burns’s The Learig and David Malloch’s pastoral The Birks Of Invernay (Malloch was an 18th century Perthshire poet, sometimes credited as co-author of Rule Britannia with Francis Thomson).  But the prevailing weather is lowering.  It’s fitting that one of Burns’s sadder songs, Mirk Mirk Is This Midnight Hour, finds a place here.  Love and loss is the dominant theme.  The opening Dowie Dens of Yarrow sets the tone, though some muddling of the versions of this classic Border ballad slightly dissipates its power. More menfolk are lost in Will You Go Tae Flanders, learnt from Jock Tamson’s Bairns.
Karine became a mum last year, and it may be no coincidence that the two most powerful songs are about motherhood.  In The Death of Queen Jane, sung to the threatening drone of an Indian shruti box, the woman dies in labour while her baby survives.  Francis Child said of The Wife of Usher’s Well “Nothing that we have is more profoundly affecting”, and Karine’s performance of it is simply devastating.  A subtle stretching of the usual melody heightens the poignancy of the mother’s brief reunion with her three dead sons.
The simple elegance of the accompaniment from Karine’s brother Steven Polwart, on acoustic guitar and banjo, and Kim Edgar, on piano, adds depth and space to the songs. 
I could moan about the lack of notes (the Malloch and Child snippets came from your assiduous reviewer), though I understand the counter-argument of no prompts.  And I could, like Oliver Twist, ask for MORE, as 38 minutes (including a preview track for her next album) is hardly generous.  Never mind.  Karine has returned to the tradition on her own terms with a fine album recorded in a spare room in her own home.  There is every reason to hope that the old songs will keep a space in her heart and will continue to inform her own magnificent songwriting.  She is one of our most gifted artists and her star shines bright on our times.
Tony Hendry

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This album was reviewed in Issue 78 of The Living Tradition magazine.