A duo album of piano and voice from Karine Polwart & Dave Milligan: Deceptively simple, yet devastatingly powerful
Release Date: 1st October 2021
Label: Hudson Records
Formats: CD /Download
Well now – here’s something very, very different – in a truly refreshing and life-affirming kind of way.
Karine Polwart is something of a legend in Scottish music. Hailing from Banknock, Stirlingshire, she’s now based in Pathead, Midlothian and her CV makes impressive reading. Shelves that groan with awards from the BBC, The Guardian, Songlines Magazine and many other august bodies, a long string of highly acclaimed albums including Scribbled in Chalk (2006), Traces (2012) and, most recently, Karine Polwart’s Scottish Songbook (2019), plus stints with Malinky, The Battlefield Band and Scottish/Canadian ensemble The Burns Unit all point towards an impeccable musical pedigree. Her past collaborators include the likes of Dick Gaughan, Paulo Nutini and Roddy Woomble and she’s performed in major venues all around the UK. And if all of that fails to convince, she also holds a degree in philosophy from the University of Dundee and is an active supporter of the Scottish Green Party and the cause of Scottish Independence. Wow.
For Still As Your Sleeping, Karine has taken a sweeping diversion. Described as “A duo album of piano and voice,” the album is a collection of stripped-back songs that feature Karen’s delightful voice, accompanied solely by Dave Milligan’s wonderful piano. Dave, also a resident of Pathead, is primarily known as a jazz pianist, although his writing and arranging often incorporate traditional folk influences and the combination on Still As Your Sleeping is heavenly. Dave plays with heart, soul and sympathetic emotion and leaves Karine the space to invest real feeling in the delivery of the songs. The formula really does work. Still As Your Sleeping is an album that allows – encourages even – the listener to concentrate and become fully absorbed into the songs. As the album’s press release suggests – it’s Deceptively simple, yet devastatingly powerful.
The choice of songs is certainly well-considered; a mix of old and new, self-composed and borrowed. Karine is an accomplished songwriter; in the past, she’s shown herself to be unafraid of tackling “difficult” subjects such as sex trafficking, the holocaust and alcoholism, and her songs on Still As Your Sleeping, whilst they deal with less extreme topics such as resettlement, travel and geology, will certainly add to her enviable reputation in that respect. Her interpretation of the traditional songs selected for the album is intuitive and inspired, she adds a new dimension to the songs of Alasdair Roberts and Richard Fariña and her admiration of Robert Burns is evidenced by her peerless delivery of the poet’s Ae Fond Kiss.
The album kicks off with Craigie Hill, a traditional song that deals with the timeless subject of migration and parting, and it’s clear from the outset that the combination of clear, intimate vocal and pared-back piano accompaniment is going to work a few magical spells. Traditional or contemporary, the songs all have a strong folky feel to them – so much so that, in the case of the album’s second track, the beautiful Heaven’s Hound, I couldn’t tell whether it was new or ancient. But who cares – it’s a lovely song with a dreamlike story of a couple making their way to heaven.
The mysteries of the future are pondered in The Path That Winds Before Us, a reassuring song that offers the wise advice to take life one step, and one breath, at a time, without worrying too much about where those steps and all that breathing will lead, before we return to the subject of parting with the album’s first single, The Parting Glass. Karine’s intimate interpretation of what was possibly the definitive Scottish song of parting – at least before Robert Burns chipped in with Auld Lang Syne – is sublime and refreshing.
Alasdair Roberts’s The Old Men of the Shells is another song with a strong traditional feel. Dave’s piano accompaniment helps to give the song a dreamlike, ominous tone thoroughly befitting the song’s subject matter. Dave’s accompaniment to Richard Fariña’s masterwork, The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood is even more fascinating. He manages a baffling range of effects by plucking the piano strings and by using techniques I couldn’t begin to understand to provide a fantastic backing that perfectly complement’s Karine’s clean delivery of this wonderful and well-loved song.
Geologist James Hutton’s discovery of the rock strata at Siccar Point, the Berwickshire headland now recognized as the planet’s most important geological site and the birthplace of modern geology, is celebrated in the half-spoken/half-sung Siccar Point before Karine moves on to express her appreciation of the vast variety of North America in the charming Talk to Me of Mendocino – a song in which she manages to sound almost like a Scottish Joni Mitchell. Karine Polwart wrote Travel These Ways for Luminate, the Scottish festival of creative aging, an event that encourages, advises and involves older artists in creative activities. It’s another beautiful song, with a simple, comforting refrain: “Wherever we go, wherever we bide, We’ll travel these ways together.”
Burns’s Ae Fond Kiss, possibly the prime contender if Scotland was to ever seek an alternative national anthem, rounds off a fantastic album. Yet again, Polwart rises superbly to the occasion with a delivery that is heartfelt, respectful and above all, full of the intimacy that makes Still As Your Sleeping such an exceptional album. Anyone with a liking for Scottish folk or traditional music will be thrilled by this one!
By the way – Karine’s tour, on which she will be accompanied by her brother Steven and long-time collaborator Inge Thomson, kicks off on 8th October at The Sage in Gateshead and runs until 17th October when she plays The Apex in Bury St Edmunds. Full details are available here.
Listen to The Parting Glass – the album’s first single – here: