Polwart is a much more interesting and accessible artist when writing about the...
Chris White 2008
As well as giving birth to her first child, philosophy graduate and folk chanteuse Karine Polwart has somehow found time over the past year to record two new albums, December's traditional Scottish collection, Fairest Floo’er, and now the self-composed This Earthly Spell. Only a full-time musician since the age of 29, Polwart's debut release, Faultlines, won the best album award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, and since then her simple but evocative style, featuring some stark, often harrowing lyrics inspired both by the history of her native land and her years working for Scottish Women's Aid, have established the Borders-based singer as one of her genre's most respected contemporary exponents.
This Earthly Spell reinforces some of the core elements that forged Polwart's reputation, but does not really deliver much of a punch. Typical tracks like Better Things and Rivers Run carry on the tradition of recently rediscovered female folk greats like Anne Briggs with their prettily meandering acoustic guitar lines and crystal clear vocals, but are little more than proficient and pleasant. Opening number, The Good Years, has the kind of hymnal but slightly saccharine chorus omnipresent in modern country, while The News's pallid jazz evokes unwelcome memories of Fairground Attraction.
It's only on Firethief, a poignant lament to a young man stricken by AIDS, that Polwart really lives up to her reputation as a songwriter of true stature. The hauntingly insistent guitar line and some coruscating imagery combine with powerful effect to describe a mother's ''bonnie laddie'' withering away to become ''a rickle of skin and bone'' – evidence of a captivating storyteller that is rarely apparent elsewhere on This Earthly Spell.
The album closes with the eight minutes plus of Tongue That Cannot Lie, a ponderous elegy to the thirteenth century poet and prophet, Thomas The Rhymer. This medieval sage was no doubt a most intriguing individual, but Polwart is a much more interesting and accessible artist when writing about the struggles of the living.