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Karine Polwart & Dave Milligan
Still As Your Sleeping Tom Bolton , September 30th, 2021 08:35

With no more than a piano for accompaniment, the songs on Still As Your Sleeping still sound urgent and key, finds Tom Bolton

Karine Polwart’s new album is stripped back, just her voice and Dave Milligan’s piano. But, like all her work, it is an exercise in collaboration, both direct and indirect. Milligan is a neighbour in her Midlothian village, as is Jenni Douglas who created the cover art. Recording took place ten minutes down the road. This hyper-local focus reflects the experience all of us were undergoing during 2020, when the album was made, but it comes naturally to Polwart whose records are often credited to ‘Karine Polwart with...’ or ‘Karine Polwart and…’ So does music bedded in her Midlothian surroundings. Her 2017 album, A Pocketful of Wind Resistance, span myths and stories around Fala Flow, near her home.

Collaboration also takes the form of links to modern Scottish folk music. The opening track is a version of the traditional song, ‘Craigie Hill’. It features on Dick Gaughan’s seminal ‘Handful of Earth’ album from 1981. She also covers Alasdair Roberts’ ‘Old Men of the Shells’, a haunting song that sounds both ancient and timeless. The space created by the simple instrumentation is filled by an intense atmosphere, created by her beautiful, arresting voice and Milligan’s distinctive playing. Every song on the album sounds as though it belongs to the two of them, made anew by their focus and the honesty of their approach.

Polwart is also known for contemporary political engagement through traditional music. 2019’s The Laws of Motion covered Trump, war, and nuclear annihilation. The references on Still as Your Sleeping are less direct, but speak to current concerns. The “landlord and their agents” on ‘Craigie Hill’ seem very familiar, as people struggle to pay their rent during the pandemic. ‘The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood’, previously recorded by Sandy Denny and Pete Seeger, is a lament for environmental destruction that rings even truer in the era of climate change. Still As Your Sleeping is a triumph, a record of rare beauty that takes familiar songs and makes them into something fresh, urgent, and entrancing. Polwart is a musician with great presence, whose work is helping to define our time, and her latest is a deeply layered pleasure, to be treasured and celebrated in equal measure.