Something a bit different from the ever mercurial golden tonsils of Karine Polwart.
Release Date: 11th October 2023
Label: Hudson Records
Karine Polwart is one of those singers oft said to be able to sing the phone book and still entrance the listener. And, if not exactly the phone book, this intriguing release is demonstrative of the extraordinary power of her larynx, being also largely spoken word. But what words, and how well spoken. Let’s have some exposition.
If you are one of those souls who are permatuned to Radio 4 in house or car, you will have heard this, it coming from a three-part radio series earlier this year, between the 27th of August and 10th of September, at lunchtime on three consecutive Sundays. However, if like me, Radio 4 is more aspiration than actuality, this is the perfect snapshot of the first in the series, wherein Polwart revealed her love for science, history, folklore and the natural world, in a tale of the lofty palm, Sabal Bermudana, at Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden, felled for the fear of it growing through the roof.
Subtitled, ‘I’m Not Who You Think’, Polwart was the ideal individual to present and write the story, and the accompanying music, along with Pippa Murphy, the two having performed at a ‘living wake’ for the tree, an overnight vigil, held one the eve of the event, in September 2021. Polwart and Murphy are both official artists in residence at the Botanic Gardens, which is, in itself, a wonderful idea. Subsequently, as part of trying to continue some sort of ongoing presence for the species, a secret became unfurled. No spoilers, but all is revealed, as is the nature of the “sleight of beak” likely leading to the misapprehension.
It’s a lovely recording, and, when she does, briefly, across three of the tracks, the singing is as you would expect. Piano comes from Dave Milligan and small pipes from Gary West. It is true, it would be stretching things to feel this a musical event, the singing and the instrumentation more part of filling out the mental image of the narrative, but it is a delightful way to pass nearly 20 minutes, to delight in the rich cadence of Polwart’s feisty narrative and to be, yes, both entertained and educated.
Plus, in the ever more blurred borders between speech and music, in the week when Spotify has included, if somewhat contentiously, audiobooks across their streaming palette, to have a radio programme available in this way, for posterity, seems fitting. (And no longer available on i-player, should you wonder!) I am uncertain, at the time of this, whether the further two episodes will become similarly available.
Here’s a taster: