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Karine Polwart with Pippa Murphy
A Pocket Of Wind Resistance The Quietus , November 24th, 2017 09:35

The soundtrack from a lauded theatre production, a multilayered portrait of life on (and flying above) a Midlothian peat bog. By Tom Bolton

Wraith-like, wind-blown xylophone notes are all that accompany Karine Polwart’s clear, Scottish tones through the opening minutes of her new album. The first track, ‘All On A Summer’s Evening’, envelops us in a northern terrain of heather and feathers, queens and petticoats, fragile beauty and airy atmosphere. Layers start to accumulate. The track segues into narration, as Polwart tells a story set in 1919 of a woman called Roberta and her husband Will, and the particulars of a moor called Fala Flow. Then the moor itself joins in, recounting its flora and fauna and the human procreation that takes places on its mosses in ‘The Moor Speaks’. Soon, as the perspectives multiply, ‘Labouring and Resting’ is describing the flight of migrating geese over present-day Fala Flow, Polwart’s home.

These ambitious, enfolding narratives of place are the product of a stage show. A Pocket Of Wind Resistance is the soundtrack of Polwart’s production of the same name, which has played in venues from Stoke Newington to the Edinburgh Lyceum. With Pippa Murphy as sound designer, Polwart’s songs sit alongside traditional ballads and the poetry of Robbie Burns as part of a sound and storytelling continuum. Both Polwart and Murphy live at Fala Flow, an area of Midlothian moors southeast of Edinburgh, and A Pocket… is a multilayered meditation on the place, its wildlife, its people, and particularly women’s experience of giving birth. The album has the structured complexity associated with theatre but, while its multiple elements are hard to describe on the page, the lightness of Murphy’s sound design and Polwart’s gentle, alluring voice combine to make it highly engrossing experience.

Polwart combines the local and the epic with delightful ease. She can muse on the co-operative benefits of a flock of geese in flight, who work together to “cut the drag by up to 65 per cent” and draw out a political and social metaphor without sounding in the least bit clumsy. On the other hand her ‘Sphagnum Moss For A Dead Queen’, a version of a traditional song about death in childbirth sung over a low drone, is reminiscent of fellow Scottish folk singer Alasdair Roberts with whom she shares a talent for interweaving myth and modernity. However, she can switch stories to the highly personal in way that is very much her own. ‘White Woman of the Night’ is about her own difficult experiences of childbirth. The history and landscape come together in the tragic story of Roberta’s 1919 death during labour, tied around reflections on the trials of migrating swallows (“the birds who attended Christ on the cross”), the medieval Soutra Hospital at Fala and the NHS.

A Pocket Of Wind Resistance combines powerful storytelling and songwriting to produce something special. Polwart and Murphy make Fala Flow seem unnervingly real, conjuring atmosphere through quiet incantation and simple but resonant instrumentation. They also deliver a strong political message in the best traditions of folk music, making health equality something to sing about.