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Album review: Katy Carr “Polonia”

December 2, 2015

With ‘Polonia’, Katy Carr has created a record which is epic in every sense; its scope is immense and the themes covered within its apparently simple concept are as deep as they are wide-ranging. It’s a rare treat to come across a record which is so consistently entertaining as it is informative.

Click here to read the whole review at Folk Radio UK

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Cover of Polonia by Katy CarrPerhaps I’m being wildly optimistic but it seems to me the world might be a much happier place if we only took a little time to get to know those with whom we share this planet, so that we can begin to accept and celebrate our diversity instead of allowing our differences to keep us apart, endlessly suspicious and hostile. Of course, the problem with such apparently simple ideas is knowing where to begin, so I’m happy to say that Katy Carr has provided the ideal starting point for finding out more about our Polish friends with her new album, Polonia.

The 16-song collection was recorded by the London-based performer/songwriter with a little help from her friends and each song explores a particular aspect of Poland or its many notable citizens, with particular reference to some of the unsung heroes of World War 2. As such it provides a unique and enjoyable way of finding out a little more through music – surely the one medium with the power to unite us – and Katy is to be applauded for her work in bringing this entertaining and informative project together in such an appealing way.

And where better to begin our exploration than with the record’s title track, ‘Polonia’? As Katy says in her extensive sleeve notes, “Polonia is the Latin name for Poland and is the realm I am celebrating in my music and songs – a strong, brave sovereignty proud of her freedom fighters and warriors who march to bring justice and peace to troubled times.” She adds that the name was also given by Sir Edward Elgar to his 1915 symphonic prelude, inspired by a number of traditional Polish songs, as a way to assist the Polish Victims Relief Fund in their fundraising for World War I victims in Poland. Katy’s milieu is quite a way from classical music and this opening song is a great showcase for her own musical sound – itself quite iconoclastic and unhindered by borders; here it stands happily at the crossroads between contemporary folk and indie rock with B.J. Cole’s pedal steel guitar bringing a touch of Americana to the proceedings – and her distinctive voice, clear and confident with an impressive range.

The protaganists of ‘When Charlie Met Pola’ are none other than the film actor Charlie Chaplin and his fiance, the Polish actress Pola Negri, who was the first European film star to be invited to Hollywood. Katy’s arrangement is a joyous musical celebration of the golden age of silent film, replete with suitably plonky piano and Guy Schalom’s clip-clop percussion, interspersed with some well-placed accordion and featuring Katy multitracking her vocals for the most delightfully unhinged bridge I’ve heard in quite a while.

‘Got a Little Bit of Love’ pays tribute to the women who were the backbone of the Polish Underground Home Army during World War 2; indeed, it seems that Polish women were an indispensable part of the nation’s military forces across the board. Katy’s reggae-tinged homage is propelled by Sam M. Kelly’s drums and some solid bass by one Nigel of Bermondsey. Oliver Parfitt adds some synth flourishes that sparkle like falling snow but it’s Katy’s vocals, particularly her multitracked harmonies, that stick.

Katy’s well-honed pop sensibilities underpin ‘We Can Go Dancing’; verging on Europop without the Eurotrashiness, it’s a strong, uptempo song with some excellent fills from the horn section of George Simmonds and Paul Tkachenko. This is an appealing combination and on its own would be more than enough for me to flag this as one of the album’s highlights, but it’s also notable for its display of Katy’s skill as a writer. Lyrically it considers the huge subject of the Polish people’s historical sensitivities to nationhood and freedom, not only at home but also in selflessly assisting other nationalities to achieve their own freedom. It takes a particular talent to weave these ideas into a pop song and it’s this ability which marks Katy out as a potential musical force to be reckoned with.

The ubiquity of computers has brought with it an interest in the history of these devices and, for a British person, it’s hard not to avoid references to the groundbreaking work of Alan Turing and the Bletchley Park codebreakers during WW2 in decoding German military messages enciphered on the Enigma machine. Less well known is that Turing’s efforts built on an earlier machine – the bomba kryptologiczna (“cryptologic bomb”), from which this song derives its title – which was designed in 1938 by Polish Cipher Bureau cryptologist Marian Rejewski and ‘Bomba’ is Katy’s retelling of the story. Over a swaying rhythm accentuating the off beats, it’s a moody arrangement, at times reminiscent of The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’, particularly in George’s Rico-esque trombone, while Oliver’s fizzy synths and Paul’s trumpet add an appropriate air of faded wartime glamour. A definite highlight of the album.

‘Jumping with Zo’ revisits the role of women in WW2 with a paean to Brigadier General Elzbieta Zawacka, whose nom de guerre was ‘Zo’ (and who, coincidentally, was taught mathematics by the cryptologist Marian Rajewski, featured in the previous composition). As Katy explains in her sleeve notes, “Zawacka was the only woman to serve with the Polish Special Air Service, the Cichociemni (Silent and Dark) and was parachuted into Occupied Poland at her own request in 1943” and, as such, “is recognised as the most important and highly decorated female Polish freedom fighter in WWII history”. Katy’s arrangement conveys a suitably nervy anticipation with some clever phasing and determined spoken voiceovers; a particularly good touch is Paul’s trumpet part which echoes the traditional Krakow ‘Hejnal’ anthem.

Effortlessly encompassing the personal and the political, ‘Hands of Time’ is dedicated to two of Katy’s loved ones while deriving its inspiration from quotes by Marcus Garvey and Pope John Paul II. From a low-key opening of Katy’s voice over piano and Hammond organ, it builds – via Sam and Nigel’s steady rhythm section, adding multitracked harmonies and horns en route – to its rousing and upbeat climax and is an open-hearted song of unity.

We live in an age where displaced populations are the order of the day throughout the world, with numbers increasing exponentially. Too often the kneejerk reactions of many of the more fortunate overshadows the fact that migration, forced and voluntary, has been part of the culture of humankind for centuries and often brings benefits to the wider population. The short instrumental ‘Exiles’ gives the listener pause for thought at how these movements of people has played out across Polish history. There’s a timely reminder in Katy’s choice of subject that such eminent Poles as Marie Curie and Fryderyk Chopin (whose music Katy echoes to good effect here in her piano playing), among others, were also what we would today call migrants or refugees: exiles. A rose by any other name…

‘My Beloved General’ returns to the wartime theme with its references to General Stamslaw Maczek, a well-respected Polish tank commander whose division was instrumental in the Allied liberation of France. He eventually found his way to Britain where he joined the many other Poles who defended this country during WW2. In 1948 he was stripped of his Polish citizenship – another exile – and thus had to remain in Britain. Refused a military pension by the British government, he worked as a bartender for many years in an Edinburgh hotel, before the Communist Government of Mieczyslaw Rakowski issued a public apology in 1989. Maczek died in 1994, at the age of 102; his sad tale making a timely a reminder that each of our lives can change almost overnight, not always for the best and Katy’s ska-tinged tribute manages to be both touching and moving while making its point succinctly and without sentimentality.

The theme of Polish women in war continues in ‘Christine the Great’, its simple structure (Katy’s multitracked vocals accompanied by her fluent piano) making a nice interlude amongst the full band arrangements which precede and follow it. The lyric is about Krystyna Skarbek (her nom de guerre was Christine Granville), the first woman agent of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), who was the inspiration for the character Vesper Lynd in Ian Fleming’s book Casino Royale and the song is a highlight for its understated sense of glamour during difficult times.

The story of Polish cryptologist Marian Rejewski and his groundbreaking codebreaking work (covered earlier in ‘Bomba’) is revisited in ‘The Mathematician’ but this time through the eyes of a fictitious and anonymous member of the Bletchley Park staff and her unrequited love for him. It brings his tale to life in an unexpectedly vivid way; Katy’s jaunty, upbeat arrangement is a beautifully crafted musical representation of the “typically British” reserve and the heartache it conceals. Such a deceptively simple idea, realised to perfection and another of the record’s highlights, without question.

While Wikipedia may suggest that the most notable thing about Edmund Zygfryd Trebus was that he was “a compulsive hoarder, who came to fame when he was featured on the British television documentary series A Life of Grime“, Katy’s lyric for ‘Mr. Trebus’ adds some welcome nuance. He was conscripted into the Wehrmacht in 1939, then captured before going on to serve with the Allied forces, under British command, in Italy. After the war, he moved to north London where he settled down and married, raising five children and all the while, the trauma of his past manifested itself increasingly in his compulsive hoarding. Katy’s lyric is a masterpiece of “show, don’t tell” while the arrangement calls to mind the bittersweet ska/pop of Madness, another of north London’s originals.

‘Quo Vadis’ references the eponymous book written by Henryk Sienkiewicz, which gained him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905. It is, as Katy explains, “an epic love story and addresses early Christian persecution”. Her lyrics, although avoiding any overtly religious imagery, successfully and subtly refer to the Bible, specifically the description of Peter meeting Jesus when trying to flee from crucifixion in Rome and asking “Quo Vadis?” (Where are you going?). The song’s arrangement is simple – Katy’s voice over piano and synth – but the juxtaposition more than suits the complexity of its subject matter.

The Greek myth of Demeter and her daughter Persephone inspires ‘Poland Calling Polonia Home’, although using Demeter to represent Poland and Persephone as Polonia, the ancient name which symbolises so many of what perhaps might be called ‘Polish values’. Katy’s lyric is written from the first person perspective of the mother to make the point that, no matter how distant the two may become, there will always be a bond between them and they will, at heart, always share the same positive values and beliefs. In many ways it’s a deeply patriotic composition but Katy’s lightness of touch, musically and lyrically, ensures that it avoids bluster and bloat, remaining deftly upbeat and still making its point in a sweet and melodious way.

The penultimate ‘Snow Is Falling’ concerns itself with an aspect of the post-war years – borders – which has particular resonance today, seventy years later, with the Schengen Agreement the subject of much attention as a result of the current refugee crisis. The song is a sobering reminder that the question of national borders remains as complex as ever, although Katy’s handling of the subject by means of a first-person love song is to be commended for its sensitivity and tact. Musically, the song is an uptempo pop/rock number with powerhouse drumming, an extraordinarily tight horn section and a gorgeous multitracked vocal dropout at the bridge.

The album closes with ‘Red Wine’, a song about an episode of Dom, a long-running tv drama series, in which one of the characters, Basia (played by the Polish actor Jolanta Zolkowska) is portrayed as a drunken woman who becomes involved in a barroom fight in post-war Warsaw. Katy explains in the sleeve notes that Basia’s drinking is because “she cannot handle the despair, grief and mourning for her lover Luke who was killed in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944”. Even without this backstory it’s possible to enjoy the song as a straightforward ballad; B.J. Cole’s pedal steel guitar and Oliver Parfitt’s keyboards conjure an air of melancholy retrospection while Katy’s electronically-treated vocals provide a distant but heartfelt commentary as the song arrangement quietly unravels.

With Polonia, Katy Carr has created a record which is epic in every sense; its scope is immense and the themes covered within its apparently simple concept are as dee as they are wide-ranging. It’s an absolutely fascinating listen which kept me enthralled from beginning to end; it’s a rare treat to come across a record which is so consistently entertaining as it is informative. Katy’s obvious love of Poland and the Poles shines through at every turn; it’s impossible to resist her infectious enthusiasm for her subject and I can only echo her own sentiments: “Long live Freedom, long live Polonia!”

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (02 December 2015)

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