Independent on Sunday
2 September 2007
Six albums, countless live performances and eight years on from being 1999's token, sorry, wildcard Mercury nominee, not an awful lot has changed in the world of folk songstress Kate Rusby. She is still, as the BBC put it, 'the acceptable face of folk'; less traditional than Eliza Carthy and easier on the ear than Seth Lakeman. The only thing that has noticeably shifted over time is that with each album she releases, her own compositions have improved to the point that the word 'Rusby' is now a surer mark of a song's quality than the word 'trad' . And old-school folkies can stick that opinion in their pipe and slippers and smoke it.
14 September 2007
This is Kate Rusby's first self-produced album, and she plays to her strengths, with few surprises except for her increased use of strings and piano. As ever, she switches between her two favorite styles: there are jaunty, mildly quirky and humorous songs like the title track or The Old Man; and then the far more distinctive slow, sad-edged ballads that are so suited to her light, pure vocals; There are self-composed songs here, from the pleasantly drifting Planets to the lament for the death of a child (Daughter of Heaven), but it's her reworking of traditional songs that is most satisfying. This latest selection includes John Barbury and a glorious revival of the McPeake Family's Blooming Heather which builds to a rousing finale with the help from opera singer John Hudson. The annoyingly titled 'bonus track' is a solid treatment of Ray Davies' Village Green Preservation Society. Her followers will not be disappointed.
It's been a decade since Kate Rusby launched her solo career, and since then she's risen to the first rank of English folk artists. 2005's The Girl Who Couldn't Fly brought a maturity to the youthful allure of her music, and with Awkward Annie, the singer with the moniker of the Barnsley Nightingale returns in powerful form. It's an album that combines emotionally driven originals with traditional songs set to new tunes by Rusby. With superb ensemble playing from the likes of Andy Cutting, Ian Carr and John McCusker, and with guest vocals from Eddi Reader, it's a stunning collection of work. It has a dark, cohesive emotional pull, with many of the songs set at a lulling, late-night pace, and all are seemingly dragged up from depths from which the singer feared she would never return. 'I ground to a halt more than once and gave up,' Rusby confesses in the album,s liner notes. One has to thank, as she does, those who took part in the recordings and helped her finish what may well stand as her finest album. It's likely that Awkward Annie will figure at the top of a lot of end-of-year polls. Her voice remains exquisite, if more lived-in, so that it demands your absolute attention, and the ensemble's acoustic instrumental settings are absolutely top of the range.
07 October 2007
Ah, here's the one we've all been waiting for! Guest appearances from Lemmy, Ozzy Osbourne and Francis Rossi; Kanye West and Jay-z rapping in the background; samples of Hendrix, Pussycat Dolls and Sonic Youth; and an explosive Dizee Rascal production. And doesn't Kate look good in fishnets and leather on the cover! Er sorry, must stop taking acid'.
Familiarity breeds contempt and Kate Rusby gets almighty flak for her reluctance to leave her comfort zone but she remains what she's always been- a sumptuous singer with a particularly intimate way of selling a story that catches imaginations way beyond the normal confines of folk music. This is Kate's first self-produced album and it's probably her best since Sleepless. Most of the usual gang is here but the arrangements are mostly far more direct than of late and there's a real shift in emphasis. John McCusker barely picks up his fiddle throughout an album that carries a surprising emphasis on banjo (including a couple of match-winning performances from Leon Hunt), while Chris Thile's mandolin steals the show on the irresistible The Old Man, Ian Carr plays ukulele on Farewell, Eddie Reader sings backing vocals and Capercaillie's Donald Shaw links serenely on piano with Mike McGoldrick's flute and an understated string section to give the moving ballad John Barbary a touching majesty.
Yet despite the wealth of musical support, which not only includes strings, but a brass section, there's a far more stripped-down, grittier feel about it, in which Rusby herself seems to grow. Her duet with Chris Thile on the American-styled High On A Hill is unlike anything she's done before and while too tentative, her take on Ray Davies's Village Green Preservation Society (from the Jennifer Saunders TV show Jam & Jerusalem-included here as a 'bonus track') proves the allure of her voice transfers to other genres.
More than that, her songwriting-which occupies half the album- has moved on a notch. She's a more convincing writer when not consciously trying to ape traditional forms and in the tense, charged Bitter Boy- arranged here with devastating simplicity- she's surely written the best song of her life, at last overtaking the early promise of Who Will Sing Me Lullabies? The equally heart-wrenching Daughter of Heaven isn't far behind either. It's morose stuff on the whole, unlikely to convert the cynics, but this is Rusby baring her emotions almost like never before, even as the horns lay into Streams Of Nancy and strings wade in behind Andrew Lammie (though this arrangement loses on points to Martin Simpson's epic version on his new album Prodigal Son). I'm not wild about her song Planets, but the only real aberration is Blooming Heather. Bequeathed by the McPeake family as the national anthem of folk clubs, the interesting operatic contribution of John Hudson isn't sufficient to breathe new life into what still sounds like a tired old warhorse, and the best that can be said about it is that it's better than Rod Stewart's version.