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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1245

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Kate Rusby: Little Lights
by George Graham

(Compass Records 4310 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/11/2001)

The revival of interest in Celtic and other traditional British Isles music has brought forth a lot of worthy recordings in recent years. Not only have some of the veteran performers in the genres been issuing new music, but a new generation of neo-traditionalists have been doing some great things for the music, with some of them really raising the level of musicianship. In the Celtic Music world, none comes to exemplify this more than the band Solas and the various members of the group in their solo projects. While the English folk scene also remains active, with veteran artists releasing fine new recordings, there have been relatively fewer new artists emerging on the scene. But surely one of the most impressive is Kate Rusby, who has just released her third album on her own, called Little Lights.

The offspring of a pair of folksingers, Ms. Rusby was born and raised in Yorkshire, where her family had a ceilidh band, in which she was playing fiddle by five. While she studied music at Barnsley College, she was not sure she wanted to make music her career, but she started a collaboration with a childhood friend, Kathryn Roberts, and the two formed a band called Equation. There was a Rusby-Roberts duo album, which gained a fair amount of critical praise in England. Ms. Rusby was also part of the all-female folk band The Poozies.

In 1998, Ms. Rusby released her first solo album, Hourglass which became a surprising hit in England, the biggest-selling folk album of the year. In 1999, Ms. Rusby followed that up with Sleepless a delightful recording that was both musically sparse in instrumentation but absorbingly eclectic. She has been winning numerous awards along the way, and picking up a number of well-known performers in the field, like Richard Thompson, as fans. Though young in years -- she is still in her 20s -- she has developed that rare timeless quality of some of the English women folksingers of previous generations, like Maddy Prior, June Tabor or the late Sandy Denny.

Ms. Rusby's new album Little Lights is a definite sequel to Sleepless, with sparse, all-acoustic instrumentation, and a blend of traditional songs with original compositions by Ms. Rusby that one would have a hard time telling from centuries-old ballads. She is joined by some of the same musicians who appeared with her on Sleepless, including John McCusker, of the acclaimed Scottish traditional group The Battlefield Band, who produced both albums, as well as guitarist Ian Carr, a sometime jazz musician; American musicians and songwriters Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott; and from Ireland John Doyle formerly of Solas. Making guest appearances are Eddi Reader, formerly of Fairground Attraction and a fine singer-songwriter in her own right, and one track, bassist Danny Thompson formerly of the Pentangle, one of the pioneering English folk groups of the 1960s.

Little Lights is an almost breathtakingly beautiful album from start to finish, with Ms. Rusby's remarkable voice at center stage, and the subtle instrumentation never distracting from it. Like the great English folksingers who preceded her, Ms. Rusby voice can evoke misty castles, and yet her warm soprano has a emotional depth that belies her outwardly understated presentation, with frequent hints of her distinctive Yorkshire accent.

As on her last album, the songs on Little Lights tell stories, with many borrowing from the tradition when songs delivered the sex and violence that in a later century would be the domain of the movies. There is often a dichotomy between the musical setting of great beauty and the lyrics often filled with sadness. But there is also a good helping of love songs, with the ornate and indirect language of traditional folk, even those of the original songs Ms. Rusby penned herself. And following the pattern of her last album there is also a performance of a contemporary song, in this case, one by Richard Thompson. Interestingly most of the album's songs are either waltzes or jigs.

The album opens with one of its more violent songs. Playing of Ball, features traditional lyrics set to music by Ms. Rusby. The story is of a girl who falls in love with a young man, but her father does not approve, and kills the boyfriend. <<>>

One of the oldest love dilemmas is addressed in the original song by Ms. Rusby called I Courted a Sailor. She falls in love with a seaman, and of course, duty calls and he is gone for a long time. However, unlike the outcome of many such songs, this time they both remain faithful. The presence of McCusker and Doyle helps add to the Celtic influence. <<>>

Merry Green Broom is another set of traditional words set to music by Ms. Rusby. The whimsical lyrics tell the story of a curious bet between a man and a woman. In the end, she wins, and remains a "maiden," as the lyrics put it. <<>>

There has always been a connection between British Isles music and Appalachian folk. The influence flows in the other direction on Ms. Rusby's version of Canaan's Land, known as an American Gospel tune often done in bluegrass settings. The version here is nicely done, with assistance from Eddi Reader's backing vocals. <<>>

Ms. Reader also lends her backing vocals to Ms. Rusby's performance of Richard Thompson's Withered and Died, which is given an almost plaintive quality. <<>>

One of the interesting additions to this album is a brass choir, which can give an oddly melancholy texture to the music. It is heard on the end of the traditional song Some Tyrant, another ballad of separated lovers. <<>>

A love affair takes a couple of unexpected twists in William and Davy, who are brothers who both fall in love with the same girl. It's original composition by Ms. Rusby that captures the essence of very old traditional songs. Done in an Irish jig meter, the song relates what happened when the brothers choose to let the girl decide between them. Of course, she had other ideas. <<>>

The brass section provides the sole accompaniment to the Rusby original My Young Man. The result is positively haunting. <<>>

The album ends with another of those hidden tracks, which as an idea, by now has lost its novelty. But it's a cute children's song: The Big Ship Sails. <<>>

Kate Rusby's new third album Little Lights is a real gem. The young singer has, by her mid 20s, already become one of the great voices of English folk. But, like her previous album, she also mixes in Celtic influences, owing to the presence of people like producer John McCusker. Her voice, one of the most evocative to come along in the genre in quite a while, continues to improve, and the arrangements on this CD are virtual paragons of tastefulness. Ms. Rusby is also significant as a songwriter, possessing the gift of being able to create new songs that sound as if they are three hundred years old. And on the traditional material, the arrangements are distinctive enough that most have new melodies penned by Ms. Rusby.

Our sound quality grade for the CD is an "A". The acoustic instrumentation is nicely recorded, Ms. Rusby's voice has a wonderfully intimate sound, and there is a decent dynamic range, maintaining an "open" quality and leaving the ebb and flow of the music relatively unimpeded.

With the revival of interest in British Isles folk, Kate Rusby's Little Lights comes at a very good time. Its title, according to Ms. Rusby, was inspired by coming home one dark night and only seeing her cat's eyes reflecting some dim light. Despite the title, Ms. Rusby has become one of the truly bright lights on the scene.

(c) Copyright 2001 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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