Album Review

Karen Matheson – Still Time: Album Review

Eleven divine contemplations from Karen Matheson, the Voice of Capercaillie.

Release Date:  12th February 2021

Label: Vertical Records

Formats: CD, Vinyl

Karen Matheson surely needs no introduction.  Known to many as “the voice of Capercaillie,” Karen has been charming us now for over 30 years. So much so that Sean Connery, no less, was moved to declare that “Karen Matheson has a throat surely touched by God.”  And that divine contact is on full display on Still Time, Karen’s fifth solo album.

Still Time has had a lengthy gestation.  Work first began on the project way back in 2005, but personal challenges, including Karen’s sad loss of both of her parents, and then a period of focus upon the Gaelic songs of her childhood, which culminated in the release of her 2015 album Urram, diverted Karen’s attention away from her embryonic collection. It wasn’t until the 2020 summer lockdown that she found the time or the faith to complete Still Time.  Indeed, the album’s title (taken from a song written by Karen’s husband Donald Shaw and included on the album) was chosen because of its resonance – with the lockdown causing time to ‘stand still’ and because the lockdown also made her realise that there was ‘still time’ to finish the project she’d started.

Capercaillie have, of course, been described as “The most exciting and vibrant band in the field of Celtic music today” and that excitement and vibrancy are captured on Still Time, albeit with added sweetness and mellowness. Make no bones about it, this is a superb album.  Karen and producer Donald have assembled a mightily impressive range of musicians and instruments to compliment Karen’s beautiful singing on this inspired selection of songs.  Production is rich and lush and instruments as diverse as saxophone (Fraser Fifield), Flugel Horn (Ryan Quigley), Cello (Rudi Di Groot), banjo (Dirk Powell), fiddle (Hannah Fisher) and dobro (James Grant) all take starring roles at various stages of the album.  But none of this outstanding instrumental work diverts attention away from that beautiful voice that brings to mind, yet leaves behind, the likes of Karen Carpenter and Stevie Nicks.

Karen Matheson performing with Capercaillie – Cropredy Festival, 7th August 2014 (Pic: John Barlass)

The album comprises 11 songs, derived from various sources, and all are excellent.  Long-time collaborator James Grant, the Glasgow songwriter and guitarist chips in with four compositions (that’s as well as playing some wonderful guitar and dobro), husband Donald adds a couple more. Then we’ve got two awesome interpretations of Robert Burns, all topped off with wisely selected songs from Irish poet/author Brendan Graham, American activist Si Kahn and Runrig’s MacDonald brothers.  It all adds up to an eclectic and highly enjoyable collection. 

James Grant’s Cassiopeia Coming Through sets the mood for the album.  It’s the album’s first single, a laid-back jazzy number with a nice shuffle-beat and laced with some wonderful flugelhorn touches and a production that provides the space for Karen’s voice to shine through. It’s a real taster for the delights to come. 

Karen’s first exposure to Si Kahn’s much-covered Aragon Mill was the version sung by Andy Irvine on Planxty’s 1983 Words And Music album; coincidentally the first place that I too came across the song.  A lament to the closure of a village mill that resulted in the desolation of the village itself, it’s an observation that applies to thousands of other communities that have been similarly devastated, under the same circumstances, all over the world.  Karen’s version of the song is majestic. Over a wonderful backing of piano, dobro, violin and cello, Karen delivers a breathtaking vocal that does the song full justice.

Title track Still Time is a slow, tuneful, piano ballad with some lush saxophone and The Diamond Ring marries Donald’s tune, a fast banjo and accordion-driven shuffle, to the words of a Childe poem that tells a story of class divisions.  It’s a lively, compulsive number that had me drumming my biro on my pad as I listened.

James Grant’s second contribution, Little Gun, is a true highlight.  It’s a song written in response to a request from Karen for “something reflecting the power of parenting and the raw emotion it brings” and boy, does it deliver on that!  Packed with killer lines such as “I made promises I intend to keep,” “I would give my life just to tuck you in at night” and, best of all, “It’s not the fact that I made you, it’s the fact that you made me” it expresses sentiments familiar to any parent, all within a delightful, soft acoustic setting that James sets alight with some excellent guitar work.

Karen’s take on Robert Burns’ Lassie With The Lint White Locks is simply stunning.  Once again, Karen’s vocal is peerless and the song is further enhanced by lovely piano, fiddle and vocal harmonies. It’s a dead cert for inclusion on my next Burns Night playlist!  The pace steps up a touch with James Grant’s anti-war song The Glory Demon, a rich, full-band production that still, crucially, leaves room for yet more awesome singing.  James’s final contribution, Laurel to a Wreath, takes the full-band production one step further on a poppy, almost funky number that sounds remarkably similar to a late period Fleetwood Mac song, except that Karen’s singing is far better than anything Stevie Nicks could possibly have managed.

Recovery, a Runrig song that deals with the social history of the Gàidhealtachd and the attempts to recover the Gaelic culture after the highland clearances, is another highlight.  Again, the vocals and the instrumentation are perfect and are given extra flavouring by Michael McGoldrick’s whistle part.  Brendan Graham’s Orphan Girl is a wistful, thought-provoking song concerning a subject of the Orphan and Pauper Scheme that was operated in Ireland in the 1840s.  We’re treated to yet more excellent instrumentation, but this time it’s the lyrics that give most food for thought, as the orphan girl ponders her chances of passing an ‘inspection’ that will determine whether she is fit to travel to Australia and, hopefully, then realise her dreams of a new life as a “good wife to a good man.

It’s amazing that, on such a consistently wonderful album, Karen still manages to hold the best back until last.  At the closing ceremony of the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, Karen performed a stunning version of Burns’ Ae Fond Kiss to a television audience estimated to have exceeded 600 million.  That performance is reprised here, this time a recording made at The City Halls, Glasgow, backed by The Clockwork Strings and piano from Donald Shaw.  Karen’s delivery of the song is beautiful and passionate and it’s been kept until the end because I suspect it would be impossible to follow.

Still Time may have taken 15 years to emerge, but it’s here now and I, for one, am so grateful for that.  An excellent album from a genuine national treasure.

Watch the official video for Cassiopeia Coming Through from the album here:

Karen Matheson Online: Website/ Facebook/ Twitter / Instagram

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