2006 is fast shaping up to be the year folk music finally reclaimed its rightful niche within the mainstream and leading the charge (along with Teddy Thompson, Jim Moray et al.) comes "Scribbled In Chalk" the eagerly anticipated new album from acclaimed Scots troubadour Karine Polwart. Fresh from sweeping the boards at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2005, Polwart delivers another assured, thought-provoking set here.
Opener "Hole In The Heart" is a wonderful introduction, a dreamy mix of finger picked acoustic guitars, keys, cello and strings, it brings to mind the clever melding of folk and indie which made Damien Rice's "O" a commercial and critical smash. Polwart's greatest asset aside from her nimble guitar playing is her gorgeous voice at once world weary and yearning it possesses a quality that distinguishes her from the grey mass of singer-songwriters out there. Fortunately Polwart eschews the predominantly introspective (and decidedly middle of the road) path taken by many of her contemporaries and sounds best when tackling roots-ier sounding material such as "Daisy" and the wistful accordion and guitar led "Take Its Own Time". "Scribbled In Chalk" is lyrically bold too, take for example the album's standout moment "Baleerie Baloo" a heart on sleeve ode to Jane Haining a missionary who was killed for her beliefs at Auschwitz in 1944. It takes guts and intelligence to tackle such a subject and it's unlikely that you'll find a lyric all year to match the sheer emotional power of "tomorrow is sealed with a sigh / and I am betrayed by a tear in my eye". Clocking in at 48 minutes in total, barely a minute is wasted here as Polwart dips in and out of the emotional spectrum moving with ease from the jaunty ("Where The Smoke Blows") to the downbeat ("I've Seen It All"). The sparse "Follow The Heron" is one of the finest to fall into the latter category. Originally recorded back in 2002 this solo version (save for a few bits of peripheral instrumentation) is a fitting ode to the natural, untainted beauty of the Shetland Islands.
At thirty-five Polwart is a 'veteran' of the folk / roots scene but this second solo album may be the one to push her beyond the fringes towards a wider level of appreciation. While it's still reasonably early in the year Karine might want to consider clearing some space for the accolades this beauty is sure to pick up.