Karine Polwart’s Scottish Songbook


It has become quite common for singer songwriters to produce an album where they cover other peoples’ songs. It might seem like a cop out for someone who has become well known for writing their own songs to produce an album with no original material on it. I’m not so sure. I am a bit of a completist when it comes to listening to an artists’ work and I want to know as much about them as I can. That’s why I read music magazines. It’s why I enjoy writing these blogs which normally involve a fair bit of reading. I mean, whoever would have guessed that The Beatles were happy to give “No Reply” away to Tommy Quickly? Incredible. The point I am trying to make is that it’s fascinating to know what makes musicians tick. To me, it’s interesting that Les Paul was a big influence on Steve Miller when he was a young boy. It’s also interesting for me to know that the songs I had learned to hate when I was young were a huge influence on Bob Dylan. “Some Enchanted Evening”? “It Had To Be You”? “As Time Goes By”? All of these released in his “Sinatra” period of the 2010s. Fascinating. (But still not enjoyable. Sorry Bob).

Of course, this is not a new idea. David Bowie – “Pin Ups” (1973), Bryan Ferry – “These Foolish Things” (1973), The Byrds – “Byrds Play Dylan” (1979), John Lennon – “Rock’n’Roll” (1975), Paul McCartney – “Run Devil Run”(1996). I’ve already mentioned the five Bob Dylan albums. I’d never heard of Molly Tuttle before Spotify suggested I listen to a version of “Helpless” that she has recently released and I’m very much looking forward to her new album of covers arriving tomorrow called “…But I’d Rather Be With You”. I’ve already heard the version she has made of “She’s A Rainbow” which sounds sensational. I recently posted a blog about the Gillian Welch and David Rawlings album called “All The Good Times Are Past And Gone” in which they sing versions of “the songs we love”. All these albums are full of the songs that are important to the artists concerned and therefore it makes them fascinating to me, helping me to understand their music a little more.

Anyone reading this blog will be able to think of other brilliant covers albums. That’s what the comments box is for.

Last year Karine Polwart released “Karine Polwart’s Scottish Songbook”. This is how she introduced the album: “I come to the rich archive of Scottish pop music with a folk singer’s heart. I dig into the songs that connect with me, as centuries old ballads often do too, not because of their retrospective sentimentality, or their uniquely Scottish character, but for their ability to reveal something about living here in this place right now.” Listening to this album and reading this album makes me want to move to Scotland immediately.

I had never heard of a Scottish band from Selkirk called Frightened Rabbit but I can see that “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” has been streamed on Spotify 8,612,656 times. They released five albums between 2006 and 2016 and Wikipedia describes their style as “indie-folk”. They supported numerous charities, raising money to fight against issues such as child abuse in Africa, bullying and homelessness. The name “Frightened Rabbit” came from a term given to Scott Hutchinson (the leader of the group), by his mother to describe his shyness. In the extensive notes for this album, Karine Polwart says that that Frightened Rabbit built their repertoire on “euphoric despair”. She adds that the song is “a glorious, insistent, infectious container for human pain”. Karine Polwart’s version is beautiful. The song was written by Scott Hutchison and describes a man contemplating suicide by drowning in The North Sea. On May 9th 2018, he tweeted “Be so good to everyone you love. It’s not a given. I’m so annoyed that it’s not. I didn’t live by that standard and it kills me. Please, hug your loved ones.” The next day, his body was found on the banks of The Firth Of Forth.

By contrast, “Machines” by Biffy Clyro is all about picking yourself up when you are feeling low. It was written by Simon Neil, the vocalist and guitarist in the band after his mother’s death. Karine Polwart describes it as a song about “creating something beautiful from all the crap around us.” There is some positivity here: “Crazy as it sounds, you won’t feel as low as you feel right now. At least that’s what I’ve been told by everyone“. Biffy Clyro are a very popular “alternative rock” band who have been heavily influenced by Metallica, Rush, Nirvana and Foo Fighters although their (original) version of this song is not rowdy. Karine Polwart has developed this song into a folk song that could endure for decades.

For anyone wanting some more uplifting songs there’s “Couldn’t Love You More”, written by John Martyn and “The Whole Of The Moon”, written by Mike Scott. These are intelligent uplifting songs. I like both these versions although the originals are hard to beat.

There are songs by other artists I had never heard of. Strawberry Switchblade were a new wave / pop duo who had a Top Ten hit in 1985 with “Since Yesterday”. I’ve played the original and all I can say is that it’s not my cup of tea. Whatever that means. Karine Polwart turns the song into a lovely folk song augmented by keyboards and excellent harmonies. It’s another haunting, sad song, wondering if a relationship is about to end and fearing that all that remains is memories. “And as we sit here alone, looking for a reason to go on, it’s so clear that all we have now are our thoughts of yesterday.”

The last song on the album is a controversial choice. “Women Of The World” is written and performed here by Ivor Cutler. Can the sentiments of the song be really true? The only lyrics are “Women of the world take over because if you don’t the world will come to an end and we haven’t got long.” I’m not sure that’s true. Donald Trump, Boris Johnson. What more proof do you need?

The other songs on this album were originally recorded by The Blue Nile, Deacon Blue, Big Country, CHVRCHES and Gerry Rafferty.

Listening to Karine Polwart’s other albums before hearing this one, I would have inferred that she was rooted in traditional Scottish folk music but listening to these songs, I can see that she loves the pop sensibility of these songs and is able to distill the essence of them into creating a unique sound of her own. Her growing body of work is a magnificent achievement.

That’s my last post until Monday. I’m off to a rain soaked Norwich for three days.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

One thought on “Karine Polwart’s Scottish Songbook

  1. Great cover versions: proper reinterpretations, the way covers ought to be. I haven’t listened properly to this album yet, but I will now. Enjoy rainy Norwich. You deserve a break after your prolific output over the last few days!

    Liked by 2 people

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