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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1308

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Kate Rusby: 10
by George Graham

(Compass Records 4350 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/15/2003)

The rise in popularity of Celtic music has also helped to spur some revived interest in English folk. While there have been a good number of younger musicians emerging in Celtic music, such as the members of Solas, Anuna and others, most of the English folk performers have had durable careers, many going back to the 1960s. But one young artist who has been attracting a good deal of attention is Kate Rusby, who had just released her fourth solo album entitled 10.

Ms. Rusby grew up in a family of musicians in Yorkshire, and was performing at an early age, playing at a folk festival professionally at age 15. Not sure she wanted to pursue music as a career, she apparently did some acting for a TV soap opera in the UK, but eventually decided that music was her calling. Before launching her own solo career, she appeared on various albums in the company of others, including with the all-female folk group the Poozies, and with her childhood friend Kathryn Roberts in the group Equation, and later as a duo. Her debut solo release in 1998 Hourglass was a surprise hit, resonating with audiences in England well beyond folk music circles. An engaging performer with a witty stage presence made more memorable by her strong Yorkshire accent, she was soon winning many awards both as a performer and as a songwriter.

Her CDs since then have been a mix of traditional songs with original pieces that lyrically very much sound as if could be hundreds of years old, with their poetic and roundabout language for events that were full of sex and violence, just like the old folksongs.

The titled 10 comes from the fact that it marks her tenth anniversary as a folk singer, something she is observing while still in her 20s. The CD is a bit of a retrospective in that she re-visits a number of songs with different treatments, and also includes a couple of live tracks, and a some re-mastered material from previous recordings, including a not-widely-distributed EP.

It may seem a bit early to be doing a retrospective recording while still in one's mid 20s, but the CD does give Ms. Rusby a chance to embellish some of the material from before, some of which was not distributed in the US, and to include live performances. But there are also two new songs, again with the sound of very traditional music. In some cases, Ms. Rusby writes new words to traditional tunes, and sometimes vice versa.

She is joined by some of the people who accompanied her on her last CDs, including John McCusker of the venerable Scottish group The Battlefield Band. McCusker is also Ms. Rusby's husband. Also appearing is guitarist Ian Carr, who also figured prominently on Little Lights, her last release from 2001. Ewan Vernal is heard on bass and Andy Cutting on accordion and concertina. Other guests include American banjo virtuoso Alison Brown, who also happens to own the record company that released the CD in the US, and pennywhistler Michael Goldrick.

Ms. Rusby has that rare, timeless English folk quality to her vocals, reminiscent of people like the late Sandy Denny and the Pentangle's Jackie McShee, whose soprano range is similar. Ms. Rusby brings the little turns and ornamentation that is characteristic of the genre, but also has a hint of vibrato which is rarer the style. She has the kind of voice that have led fans to say that they love her music, even though they claim to hate folk music. As on her previous solo recordings, the instrumentation is generally understated, and in many ways unexpected, with accordions, pennywhistles and citterns as prominent as the guitars.

It's interesting the way she revisits some songs. In some cases the arrangements are slower and more intimate, and in others, a little more upbeat. In most, her wonderful voice is even better, as she grows in musical maturity and depth.

The generous 15-song, 67-minute CD begins with an updated version of what Ms. Rusby calls in her liner notes her "all-time favorite song, and the first song [she] remembers learning from" her mother. The traditional piece The Recruited Collier, arranged by Ms. Rusby and McCusker, is a typically complicated and ultimately sad story. <<>>

One of the new songs is I Wish an attractive, but typically bittersweet tale. The music is original while Ms. Rusby adapted traditional lyrics she found in a book of British Isles folksongs. The result is quite attractive. <<>>

Ms. Rusby was invited to create music for a film called "Heartlands," in which she and McCusker also appeared. One of the songs they wrote was Over You Now, a charming but melancholy waltz. <<>>

The Fairest of All Yarrow is one of the songs from Ms. Rusby's previous recordings that she re-did for this CD. In this case it was for a scene in "Heartlands," in which Ms. Rusby and McCusker appear as musicians performing in a pub. They give the song a more upbeat treatment. <<>>

One of the songs that was remastered from previous recordings for this CD is Sweet Bride, taken from her 1999 album Sleepless. Ms. Rusby says she had written the song at age 16, and then found it in the process of moving from one house to another. The lyrics are remarkable in the way a 16-year old captures the lyrical and narrative style of old traditional songs. <<>>

One of the two live tracks on 10 is Sir Eglamore with traditional words set to music by Ms. Rusby. It was recorded on tour in 2001. The performance features most of the same musicians as the rest of the new recording on the CD, including Ian Carr on guitar, John McCusker on fiddle and Andy Cutting on accordion. The result is one of the highlights on this fine album. <<>>

One of the more interesting arrangements of a traditional folk song is The Wild Goose, which is usually done as "raucous sea shanty" as Ms. Rusby describes it, but she turned it into a kind of love song. The result has a distinctly American folk quality. <<>>

Perhaps the most striking in sound is a song called The Maid of Llanwellyn, an original piece previously recorded with the Poozies. Again, though a contemporary composition, it has an ancient quality, with the distinctive accompaniment of fiddle, accordion, and a brass section. <<>>

Kate Rusby has become probably the most acclaimed young English folk musician to emerge in some years. Though still in her twenties, her new release 10 is a kind of retrospective on ten years as a professional folk musician. While she looks back at a number of her favorite songs, the great proportion of the CD consists of new performances, and in some cases the remakes or the remastered material comes from recordings not readily available in the US. The performances are all outstanding, with her memorable voice front and center with tastefully understated but eclectic arrangements. About the only drawback is that the CD lacks printed lyrics, and sometimes with the combination of Ms. Rusby's accent and archaic words often used, it's sometimes a little hard to follow the complicated events noted in the lyrics, but Ms. Rusby's voice is such an stunning instrument that one does not really need to pay attention to the lyrics.

Our grade for sound quality is about an A-minus. The acoustic instruments are well-recorded, and Ms. Rusby's voice is especially well treated sonically, but with the variety of source material, there is a bit of sonic inconsistency, and the dynamic range could have been a little better.

The English folk scene has persisted for more than three decades through the work for such veterans as Richard Thompson, Fairport Convention, Maddy Prior and others. Kate Rusby's already decade-long career shows that it is carrying on for the long-haul among a newer generation.

(c) Copyright 2003 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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