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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1350

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Kate Rusby: Underneath the Stars -- by George Graham

(Compass Records 4370 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/7/2004)

The popularity of Celtic and British Isles music in this country has been encouraging to fans of the styles, and it continues at a respectable pace. Also heartening is the new generation of young artists who are not only carrying on the traditional styles, but bringing their own twist to the music, sometimes with highly eclectic fusions that combine it with everything from salsa to techno.

This week, we have the latest recording by a still-young artist who has been enjoying a surprising degree of popularity, especially in her home country of England. Kate Rusby has just released her fifth solo CD called Underneath the Stars.

Kate Rusby grew up in the west of England, in Yorkshire, and still very much has the distinctive accent of the area, something that can be heard even in her singing. She is the daughter of two musicians, and always was singing around her household as she grew up. Her first professional performance was at a folk festival at the age of 15. She later became part various folk groups, including the all-female band The Poozies, who achieved some degree of popularity, and Equation. In 1998, she released her debut solo CD Hourglass which received immediate critical praise, but also went high on the pop charts in England. Since then. Ms. Rusby has been continuing to make delightful music that is an interesting hybrid between Celtic and English folk, between traditional and original. Last year, Ms. Rusby released a CD called 10, which though it had some new recordings on it, basically reprised previously released material with some re-issues, remixes and live recordings. So Underneath the Stars is her first full solo release in three years, and it turns out to be another gem, again highlighting her instantly enchanting vocals, the fine musicianship of her colleagues, and the engaging blend of music from both sides of the Irish Sea. Once again, she creates new songs from old poems and ballads she found and set to her own music, and blends them with some entirely traditional pieces, and some entirely original songs.

She works with many of the same musicians who graced her previous releases, including John McCusker, her husband and a member of the long-running Scottish group The Battlefield Band, who serves as producer and player of various stringed instruments. Also re-joining Ms. Rusby for this CD is guitarist Ian Carr, bassist Ewen Vernal and accordion player Andy Cutting. Appearing on some guest backing vocals is Eddi Reader, another fine woman of English folk.

Perhaps more than any other of her releases, Underneath the Stars has a lyrical theme which dominates it: the separation of lovers, with several songs about a young man who goes away to sea. All have the wonderful quality of evoking the days of yore with horses, sailing ships, and kings providing the backdrop for many of the songs. And Ms. Rusby seems to be able to conjure those images just with her voice, which has the slightly smoky, mostly vibrato-free quality that marks some of the great women of English folk, including Sandy Denny, Maddy Prior, Jacqui McShee or June Tabor.

The generous, 12-song CD begins with one of the tracks with traditional lyrics that Ms. Rusby sets to her own tune. The Good Man is a playful song about preposterous excuses a wife makes to her husband for evidence he finds of her infidelity. Across the ocean, these circumstances have taken the form of humorous blues songs. But here, the arrangement is a kind of laid-back Celtic treatment. <<>>

A track that particularly highlights Ms. Rusby's alluring vocals is another piece with old lyrics, in this case dating from the 1800s, with a new tune created by Ms. Rusby. Like most of the material on the CD, The Daughter of Megan is love song, in this case, written from the standpoint of a young man who falls for the subject of the song, and apparently has trouble in his effort to resist her charms. Ms. Rusby's introspective and yet haunting vocals are a reminder of why she continues win rapturous reviews from most music critics any time they hear her for the first time. <<>>

The first of five songs on the CD about women loving sailors and soldiers who then went away a long time, is called Cruel, again combining traditional lyrics with an original tune by Ms. Rusby. In this case, the protagonist's beau is press-ganged into being a sailor. She apparently never sees him again. <<>>

With a happier ending is the original song called Polly. In this case, the boyfriend sailor makes it back after a number of years, though she fails to recognize him. The instrumental backing takes a more Celtic direction. <<>>

On The White Cockade the young man takes the so-called "king's shilling" and becomes a soldier, and again the lovers are separated, not to be rejoined before the end of the song. Ms. Rusby says that she got this traditional song from her parents. <<>>

In contrast to the longing of the female protagonists of most of the songs, Let Me Be is the case of a woman fending off a number of suitors, preferring to be single. Again, it's traditional words with an original tune my Ms. Rusby. <<>>

About the only non-love song on the CD is called The Blind Harper, which is an adaptation of another traditional song as done by Nic Jones. It's a classic old English ballad about a clever equine swindle engineered by the song's subject. <<>>

While Ms. Rusby mostly writes original music to the traditional lyrics, she does the opposite on Bring Me a Boat. In this case, Celtic musician Phil Cunningham wrote the piece as an instrumental and challenged Ms. Rusby to write lyrics to it. She did and the result also ties into the nautical theme of much of the CD. A further distinctive touch is the use of a brass section at the end of the piece. <<>>

Success came quickly to Kate Rusby, with her debut CD almost six years ago becoming a surprise pop hit in England, and with a growing fan base in the US. It's one of those rare cases in which genuine talent receives some of the recognition it deserves in fairly short order. Since then, Ms. Rusby has not let down her standards, something which often happens to artists in so-called niche styles who experience some general popular success. Although there was a CD released last year of some previously recorded material, albeit in somewhat different form, Ms. Rusby has also taken her time to come up with this all-new recording. Underneath the Stars is on the par with her other memorable releases, and with the added benefit of a kind of motif, of separated lovers, adding to the album's appeal. Ms. Rusby has also become adept at putting very attractive new melodies to old, traditional lyrics. So the result is another gem that will appeal to fans of Celtic and English folk, and those who generally enjoy listening to a wonderful and captivating voice.

Our grade for sound quality is close to an "A." The acoustic instruments are well-recorded, and there are some nice subtleties in the mix, especially with regards to some of the less conventional instruments like the brass section, and how they are integrated into the sonic textures. And Ms. Rusby's voice is given a wonderfully intimate quality. The dynamic range, the difference between loud and soft, is also better than the contemporary average.

While it's doubtful that Ms. Rusby will enjoy in this country the kind of crossover and pop success she has had in the UK, given the orientation of the commercial media here, Kate Rusby's Underneath the Stars is a CD that will likely enchant almost any open-minded listener who manages to hear it.

(c) Copyright 2004 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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