Katy Carr – Polonia
Released 6 November 2015 via Deluce Recordings
There aren’t many artists out there who rely quite so deliriously on their split identity and genetic heritage for the creative spark as does Katy Carr. Although she was raised in England, Carr has a Polish mother and has spent the majority of her artistic career reconnecting these inter-generational gaps to produce a body of work that is curiously unique. Her previous album Paszport was lauded as a fusion between idiosyncratic English singer-songwriter bizniz and obscure Polish folk songs – The Guardian called it “the concept album of the year” when it came out in 2012.
The problem with “conceptual” or experimental” albums is that they tend to corner an artist into a market that simply won’t receive much exposure, damned as it is with extremely isolating genre labels. It implies difficulty and puts a nasty jargonistic barrier up between the listener and the songwriter. It also implies a degree of progression – that the experiment is “leading” somewhere; that there ought to be a conclusion to all this “experimenting”. It’s a pretty ugly and inexact way of classifying a piece of music.
Nevertheless, if Paszport was a personal attempt for Carr to connect to her own Polish heritage, Polonia is a courageous attempt to broaden those sensations to a macro-national level and retell the bruised and scarred history of Poland through the 20th century. It’s a kind of bricolage recall of post-war Poland – through its wartime experiences to Communist submission – and the record offers a few ways to realign the relationships between Britain and its second largest wartime ally, Poland.
This profusion of – and declaration of – patriotic love comes, refreshingly, without the inhibiting spectre of right wing politics hanging over it – which is the regular 21st century interpretation of national pride. Instead, Carr celebrates in a blissful vacuum of contemporary politics and the beauty of the past. One can really detect the passion and full-bodied enthusiasm sitting proudly behind the voice as a constant dialogue between Carr and her nationhood, serenaded by brass, piano and lots of other instruments, is made. Those messages come almost exclusively in English – is this an artifact of education? Yes, in a way.
Carr has described for us once again a world of forgotten people and lost stories and she guides us with an unshakeable vim and enthusiasm, which makes her spirit infectious.
We are imbibed into her world of reconnection and readdressing. Polonia is historical revisionism through the medium of music – reinserting notable but forgotten Polish figures back into the landscape of the last century. She is actively and deliberately breathing melodic life into the Polish mathematicians who cracked Enigma (in Bombaand The Mathematician); the WWII Polish war hero General Maczek who was reduced to the status of a barman post conflict (My Beloved General); and the Polish spy Krystyna Skarbek, on whom the Bond woman Vesper Lynd was based (Christine The Great). It’s a noble endeavour.
The music is fun as well. Polonia feels like Carr is trying to alter the “experimental” way she is perceived, because many of these tracks are driven and up-beat songs like We Can Go Dancing, Got A Little Bit Of Love and The Mathematician are cut and edited sharply to extract maximum melody. They are bona fide pop. She has also developed into a fine composer of soft-rock lovelorn ballads. Her refrain of “Sweeeet Polonia you are in my heart” in opener Polonia and the darling repetition of “Pola Negri” (the famous old Polish film star who was Charlie Chaplin’s fiancee) in When Charlie Met Pola melt the heart. Opener Polonia is a soft-rock lovelorn ballad for Poland.
Sometimes though, as on Hands Of Time, that ostentation descends into saccharine sweetness and the sincerity of Carr – which initially feels beguiling – transforms into an ersatz kind of bawdy. Not least because the album clocks in at 75 minutes. Which is a little long for a work that rarely deviates from its elegiac sunniness.
Red Wine is the only shake-up in tone and execution. It’s the longest track on the album and the conclusory one. With Carr’s distorted voice intoning whispery nothings – imagine Elizabeth Fraser crossed with Bauhaus, or a much daintier Diamanda Galas. The song unwinds slowly like a scuzzy gothic dirge which is very satisfying.
But Polonia represents another rigorous fumble through national identities and the forgotten people of the 20th century. Carr has described for us once again a world of forgotten people and lost stories and she guides us with an unshakeable vim and enthusiasm, which makes her spirit infectious. Sometimes the style becomes cloying but the songwriting is versatile enough to prevent weariness and, crucially, present her topics in such a way that doesn’t seem gimmicky or cheap. And that is an achievement to be reckoned with because we live in a very cynical world where sincerity is usually the first thing we dismiss.