Karine Polwart's Traces: All Hail Britain's Finest Songwriter

Scottish songstress Karine Polwart has returned with an album of beautifully written contemporary ballads that position her right at the top of the songwriting tree.
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Scottish songstress Karine Polwart has returned with an album of beautifully written contemporary ballads that position her right at the top of the songwriting tree.

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"I was Farah Fawcett,
You were Steve McQueen,
And we rode your silver drifter
half the way from Aberdeen"

These are the first words you hear from Karine Polwart's latest album "Traces", and for my money, it's the finest introduction to a record in recent memory, perfectly setting the tone for an album of occasionally brutal, intensely poetic and consistently arresting songs. You see, Polwart's great skill is her ability to take a feeling or an idea so universal, so immediate and so relevant, and then instantly locate it in a character or in a relationship or in a space. "I was Farah Fawcett, you were Steve McQueen". Immediately we know what kind of people these characters are, we know where they're going, we know how they're feeling. We sense the romance of the situation. Even before the next line we sense the wind rushing through their hair. And then with that next line she puts us right on that road with them, her Scottish lilt gliding over the word "Aberdeen", the first of many references to her homeland on the album.

The song in question, "Cover Your Eyes", takes as its inspiration the destruction of the Balmedie Dune System on the Menie Estate in Aberdeenshire to make way for The Trump International Golf Links. These are songs with a social bite, not only the opener, but also "King Of Birds" which looks at London's Occupy movement through the eyes of the cathedral which was for so long its backdrop, and "Tinsel Show", in which Polwart brilliantly juxtaposes the beautiful burning chemical flames atop a BP Plant on the River Forth against the huge environmental damage that it was causing.

Then there are the songs that feel more localised, that don't have this theme of protest and instead are just excellent character studies. Salter's Road is as good a love song as has ever been written, dedicated to Polwart's 90 year old neighbour for many years, and all the travelling that she did. All folk songs should take you on a journey, and Salter's Road trundles along beautifully. Traces closes in remarkable fashion too with "Half A Mile", the story of a young girl making her first solo walk home from tennis club who never made it back. Polwart's lyrical skill is unrivaled here.

Folk music at its very best can be moving, joyous and attempt to affect social change, all at the same time, and the 10 songs in Traces exemplify this perfectly. Not to mention the fact that they are all arranged with real artistry and care, with contemporary inventive flourishes and deft fingerstyle guitar playing from Polwart herself. Quite simply, this is the best work to date from Britain's finest songwriter. Buy the record, see her live, you won't regret it.

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