KAREN MATHESON – Still Time (Compass Records)

Still TimeCapercaillie vocalist Karen Matheson’s new album, Still Time, is a wondrous album that blends folk, slight jazz, and everything else “that’s sweetly play’d in tune”. It contemplates the surging waves of Loch Lomond – and then whispers the ancient secrets of its dark and watery depths.

The first song, ‘Cassiopeia Coming Through’ (one of four written by Love And Money guy James Grant), is a bit of a breeze, with a jazzy flugelhorn, piano, guitar, and earnest vocal—with an irresistible chorus hook. This is great and very accessible popular music that conjures Joni Mitchell or even Nick Drake in his Bryter Layter ‘At The Chime Of The City Clock’ album glory. Full points for a song with commercial appeal that never loses those whispers of deep loch sapience.

And then Si Kahn’s ‘The Aragon Mill’ paints a portrait of a dying town—with its industry, pride, and humanity left to be “blowing in the wind”—a wind that always cries with a curse of sad pathos where there “are no children playing in the dark narrow streets”. Karen’s vocals vibrate with that tremulous sorrow, which cause teary ghosts to slow dance with a fading memory of a once favorite tune. Folk music can do that every once in a while.

‘Still Time’ (written by husband, producer, and musician par excellence Donald Shaw) gets deep like that before-mentioned Scottish loch in its complex and fluid beauty. A strident vocal pleads a strong melody against a lovely sax. A piano touches truth. And then the song simply waves the naked emotional flag that fellow Scot John Martyn could sometimes muster with his One World slender beauty. Big complement.

Another James Grant song, ‘Little Gun’, stretches the very human melody of parenthood over an acoustic guitar and a vocal that caresses the simple love that will “tie your shoes in the morning”. Odd – the electric guitar really echoes the touch of The Band’s Robbie Robertson, who also wrote his own ode to parenthood in his song, ‘All La Glory’. Not only that, but the song rivals the lovely contemporary folk sound of (the great) Mary Black with her current solo albums like (to just mention one of many!) Full Tide.

And then the record really gets great! The up-tempo banjo and fiddle ‘Diamond Ring’ is pure folk bliss with Karen’s “kicking up the sawdust” (with a welcomed yelp!) vocal. Robert Burns’ ‘Lassie With The Lint White Locks’ slows the pace but continues the traditional tone with a melody that is swaddled in sublime vocals. The acoustic vibe continues with ‘Glory Demon’, another James Grant tune dripping with the haunted drama (and an anguished guitar solo) of the dead soldiers because “we feed the glory demon…with our children”. The tune prays its tears with Sandy Denny-like passion. Ahh – then simple folk music – this time a lovely rendition of the already acoustic ‘Recovery’ by (the great) Runrig, with tin whistle and a percussive guitar sound. Let’s be blunt: There’s simply a reverence for Karen Matheson’s tapestried voice, which is a (much needed) welcome for this deep purity in a world that is wont to touch such beauty.

Thank you.

And this music must surely be the soundtrack for the place poet e.e. cummings suggested when he wrote, “listen: there’s a hell of a good universe next door; let’s go”.

It’s just an idea, but Still Time, its own very Scottish folk contemporary way, touches nice art like brilliant vocalists June Tabor (with band Quercus) and Norma Winstone and their ECM jazzy albums, like respectively, Nightfall and Stories Yet To Tell.

In fairness, it’s important to note that there are no Gaelic songs here. No complaint! It’s just that the heavens sort of open when KM sings in her native tongue, as she did on the album Downriver which was produced by Planxty, Bothy Band, Moving Hearts guy Donal Lunny. And Capercaillie’s second album, Sidewaulk, is a marvelous hybrid with tunes like ‘Alasdair Mhic Cholla Ghasda’, and stunning versions of ‘Both Sides Of The Tweed’ and John Martyn’s ‘Fisherman’s Dream’.

That said, there’s still more, and, well, ‘Laurel To A Wreath’ is pop rock relief. My oh my—the song could almost be a Stevie Nicks’ tune from a pretty popular Fleetwood Mac album. And then, well (again), ‘Orphan Girl’ tells the very folky tale of orphaned Irish women sent to Australia to find “a better life”, from the prospective of a young girl who hopes to pass the necessary inspection. It’s a Brendon Graham tune, but it could well be from the pen of Ralph McTell, he of ‘The Girl From The Hiring Fair’ fame. It’s a wondrous song.

And then time stands still with ‘Ae Fond Kiss– another Burns tune that simply conjures, with big orchestral colour, the sad (but sort of beautiful) tug that always exists, because Burns will, forever and a day, stand on the very precipice of forever devotion, and yet he will always find those ‘Corn Rigs’ (with Annie!) and the words that say, “But fare-thee-weel”, which pretty much slices humanity’s heart with a razor blade’s sharp dissection of love. This tune sings with that transient tragic blood.

Yeah, Still Time is music from that “hell of a good universe next door”. It jazzes a bit; it pops, it (sort of) rocks; and it always manages to throw its acoustic anchor into the depths of that deep loch sapience. So, as E.E. Cummings said, “let’s go”. Indeed, this is a beautiful, and just perhaps, a very rare and very perfectly human record.

Bill Golembeski

Artist’s website: https://karenmatheson.com/

‘Still Time’ – official video:

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