Karine Polwart,
(Neon, 2003)

Karine Polwart received the Best Scots Singer award at the Scots Trad Music Awards in September 2003, four months before the release of a brilliant solo album debut that surely will be winning its own accolades very soon.

I tend to find there is one Scottish album released each year that makes a special impact on me. In 2002 it was Karen Matheson's Time to Fall and in 2003 Capercaillie's Choice Language. I am sure Faultlines will prove to be my highlight Scottish album of 2004 (although dated 2003, it was launched at Glasgow's Celtic Connections Festival in January).

Attempts to classify the type of music on this album seem superfluous. There are various echoes of, even influences by, Corrina Hewat (who provides electro-harp and harmony vocals on the album), e2K, Kate Rusby and, not surprisingly, Malinky (the Scots band in which Polwart is lead vocalist). However, it is the contemporary originality of Faultlines that makes the greatest impact with all songs written by Polwart herself (with Hewat also contributing the "Harder to Walk Jig" as part of one track). The range of material is exciting from songs with a sharp contemporary edge (like the opener "Only One Way," "Resolution Road" and "Azalea Flower") to those with a pop/jazz-based upbeat sound (like "Four Strong Walls" and "Skater of the Surface") via lyrical and more folk-sounding numbers (like "Faultlines" and "Waterlily"). Whatever the style of the song though the quality of each is outstandingly high.

As well as Hewat (whose harp playing makes an impressive impact), the core band is highly distinguished with Mattie Foulds (drums and percussion), Kevin McGuire (double bass) and Steven Polwart (nylon, acoustic and electric guitars, and banjo). As well as her lead and harmony vocals, Polwart also plays acoustic guitar. The characteristically expansive sound of the album is aided by no less than seven other musicians, including Aidan O'Rourke (fiddle) and Emily Smith (harmony vocal, providing an ethereal layer to some of the music). It is a sign of Polwart's high quality voice that it can more than hold its own with this large line-up. I am reminded of the similar strength of Matheson with Capercaillie and Kellie While with e2K.

There are three top highlight songs for me. "Four Strong Walls" features a lively guitar-and-drums opening followed by a powerful vocal. Polwart really announces her presence with this heart-warming song in which she says, "You put me back together again." In similar upbeat style is "Skater of the Surface," with a striking combination of harp, double bass and brass creating a typically big sound.

In quite different style is the sheer beauty of "The Light on the Shore." This memorable and moving song speaks of the strength needed for a sad parting. It is a number that underpins the remarkable quality of this album. There are other delights, too, illustrating Polwart's versatility. "What Are You Waiting For?" is a stylish song, with an American-sounding tinge and distinctive support by banjo and fiddle. "Waterlily" is a quieter, perhaps more traditional, number but another trademark song.

I cannot recommend this album highly enough. If you want to hear contemporary compositions and singing at its very best combined with a top band, you will not be disappointed by this. Look out for Karine Polwart in the future -- I have a hunch we will be hearing much more from her.

- Rambles
written by Andy Jurgis
published 3 April 2004

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