Kate Rusby: Sleepless
by George Graham
(Compass Records 4277 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/15/99)
The popularity of Celtic music has not only raised the visibility of long-time performers of traditional music but has also provided opportunities for a number of younger artists who have been starting with traditional British Isles music and gone to some unexpected places, ranging from hard-edged techno dance to saccharine New Age sounds.
This week we have the fine second album by a young English woman who draws on both Celtic and English folk traditions and makes music that is at once both artistically interesting and outwardly traditional in sound with all-acoustic instrumentation. Kate Rusby's new CD is called Sleepless.
Kate Rusby is not strictly from the Celtic lands. She is a native of Yorkshire, England, and one can sometimes hear the distinctive Yorkshire accent in her pronunciation of certain words. The daughter of folk musicians, she grew up in a household where singing was an everyday activity. Her family had a ceilidh band, and she was playing fiddle by age five. As a teenager, she said she had "two separate sets of friends," her school pals and her "folk music friends." She studied music at Barnsley College, but after a while was not sure that she wanted to do music as a career. Eventually, she began collaborating with a childhood friend, Kathryn Roberts, and in 1995 they made a duo album which attracted a fair amount of attention and critical praise in the UK, where interest in traditional-style music is on the rise. Rusby and Roberts turned their collaboration into a band called The Equation, which lasted a while before Rusby decided to set out on her own, amicably leaving the group after wishing to do more traditional-sounding music. She also has collaborated in an all-female folk group called The Poozies.
Last year, Ms. Rusby released her debut solo CD, Hourglass, which became the year's best-selling traditional album in England, and was also released in this country, With the success of Hourglass the 1995 Kate Rusby/Kathryn Roberts CD was released here as well last year.
Now, Ms. Rusby is out with Sleepless, her best recording yet. The album's style is distinctive combination of traditional influence and strictly acoustic instrumentation, with arrangements that take different directions than the familiar renditions of the old songs. But there is also a good helping of original material by Ms. Rusby that sound like classic traditional ballads, complete with sex and violence in the lyrics clothed in the ornate poetic style of old ballads that require one to read between the lines for the juicy parts. While there is some of the Celtic and Irish lilt to the music, with trills and turns, the style is more toward the English folk ballad, though it should also appeal to fans of contemporary Celtic. The result is a distinctive style that is outwardly traditional, but with a combination of influences that neither Celtic nor English folk bands have done in quite this way.
One of the things that makes this album so appealing is the tastefully understated arrangements, which border on the sparse. Usually it's just guitars with one or two other instruments, such as acoustic bass, mandolin or accordion. And that spare musical support is better to allow one to focus on Ms. Rusby's wonderful vocals, which themselves are an interesting combination of English folk influence, in the Sandy Denny tradition, with some Irish inflection. Among the backing musicians are Ian Carr on guitar, a British musician who also plays jazz, and John McCusker, who plays fiddle and also was the producer of this excellent CD. Two American acoustic musicians make guest appearances, Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott, both fine songwriters in their own right.
The CD begins with its most violent song -- The Cobbler's Daughter in which a girl's parents murder her boyfriend, after suspecting the worst in her room. The song is traditional with some additional material by Ms Rusby. The flute and the jig rhythm give the song a Celtic ambience. <<>>
One of the more familiar of the traditional songs on the CD is I Wonder What Is Keeping My True Love This Night. Again, the treatment shows Celtic influence while I believe that the song is English. <<>>
With a somewhat more contemporary sound is The Fairest of All Yarrow, another combination of traditional elements with Rusby's additional material. For me, it's one of the album's highlights. <<>>
Ms. Rusby has the ability to write original songs that sound as if they are hundreds of years old. One of the most striking is called Sho Heen. With distinctive percussion accompaniment, the song is a tale of lost love, with the lyrics in classic style. <<>>
Another of the Rusby originals carries on the tradition of putting rather unhappy lyrics in a pretty setting. All God's Angels is an encounter between a woman and the man who fathered her child. He tells her that he's going with another woman. The man's part is sung by notable Nashville songwriter Tim O'Brien who also plays mandolin. <<>>
Another interesting track is Ms. Rusby's laid-back, melodic treatment the sea shanty The Wild Goose. <<>>
Ms. Rusby includes one contemporary cover song, a version of Iris DeMents's Our Town. The result is an appealing Trans-Atlantic fusion, of the American country song with the distinctly English/Celtic influenced vocal style of Ms. Rusby. <<>>
One of the most appealing of the traditional songs adapted by Ms. Rusby is The Duke and the Tinker a ballad of a nobleman who plays a joke on a humble drunkard found sleeping in the street -- taking him into his castle where he awakens in sumptuous surroundings. Here the musical setting is decidedly more Irish in influence. <<>>
English singer and songwriter Kate Rusby, still in her mid 20s, has been attracting much attention in her home country and among critics on this side of the Atlantic. Her vocals are instantly appealing, a rare combination of smooth understatement with a surprising emotional range, reminiscent of other notable English women folk-influenced singers like June Tabor or the late Sandy Denny. But Ms. Rusby is defining her own style, not afraid to draw on both Celtic and English folk influence, plus some collaboration with Nashville musicians on this CD. Her choice of material is intriguing and her original music captures the essence of the old traditions so well that it's hard to tell where the centuries-old music ends and Ms. Rusby's own songs begin. And the musicianship and arrangements are absolutely first class.
In the audio department, we'll give this CD an A. The acoustic instruments are well-recorded, though the sound of the CD does change for the last two tracks, which are listed as "bonus" material and were recorded at a separate venue. The audio clarity and treatment of reverberation is very nice, and the dynamic range is much better than on Ms. Rusby's debut last year.
By forging her own style, coupled with a great voice and very tasteful musicianship, Kate Rusby has underscored her position as one of the finest of the new folk-influenced singers from the British Isles. Her new CD Sleepless is an impressive recording that should appeal to a wide range of listeners, from fans of traditional music to singer-songwriter aficionados.
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