Kate Rusby must surely be one of British music's best kept secrets. Although very well known amongst folk music fans, she's never really hit the dizzy heights of chart fame (unless you count her duet with Ronan Keating on his single 'All Over Again' which made the top ten) and neither has she gained the recognition one as talented as she deserves. Unless you're a folk buff or a fan of Ronan Keating the chances are you've never heard of her, though you've more than likely heard her version of the Kinks' 'Village Green Preservation Society', used as the theme tune for the sit-com 'Jam and Jerusalem'
Born into a musical family, Kate's been immersed in the folk scene all her life and she played in several bands featuring other luminaries from the folk circuit such as Seth Lakeman and Cara Dillon before striking out on her own. Her first solo album 'Hourglass' received critical acclaim and some ten albums later, including one nominated for the Mercury Prize, she's released an album to commemorate her twenty years in the music business. As the album also showcases 20 songs, unsurprisingly it's entitled '20'.
The album was produced by her husband Damien O'Kane who also plays guitar on the album. The 2-disc CD is currently on sale for £8.99 or it can be downloaded for £8.49. An additional incentive to buying the album is that it features guest appearances from such people as Paul Weller, Eddi Reader and Richard Thompson of Fairport Convention to name but three and The Grimethorpe Colliery Band to name umpteen others.
This album is a fairly eclectic selection from Kate's canon all of which have been re-recorded for this album and though the music remains acoustic, the arrangements are sometimes completely different from the originals. It begins with 'Awkward Annie' which is from the album of the same name, produced about midway through Kate's career, so it's fair to say that this collection of songs isn't in any chronological order.
'Awkward Annie' retains much of its original traditional folk sound and though it isn't one of my favourites it's been given a softer, sweeter sound here and is rescued from being just another folk song by the change of tempo midway through and, of course, by the beautiful vocals from Kate Rusby, which mixes sweetness and huskiness to great effect.
'Unquiet Grave', is another traditional English folk song full of poignancy about a young man who is mourning his dead love and won't let her rest. This originally had quite an orchestrated backing which has been pared away to simple acoustic guitar accompaniment and is all the better for it.
The first big name guest is Paul Weller who joins Kate in a wonderful reworking of Sun Grazers which is one of the standout songs on the album. The song begins with simple guitar and Kate's clear, sweet vocals. She's from Yorkshire and the slight north country accent coming through gives the song an added charm, as does the fact that she just misses hitting a couple of the high notes. Paul Weller's contribution is a solo verse followed by a duet and though initially I didn't think the two voices would blend particularly well, in fact they do manage to complement each other.
If any criticism could be aimed at Kate Rusby it's that she's rather one dimensional when it comes to her vocal sound and many of her songs seem to blend into one amorphous whole. That's certainly true of 'The Lark' and 'Planets' which are very pretty songs but nothing about them is particularly remarkable. 'Wandering Soul' is saved from being just another pretty song by featuring a contribution from the excellent Eddi Reader, late of Fairground Attraction, as well as a great backing which includes great use of harmonium and banjo.
Another of my favourite tracks on disc 1 is 'Who Will Sing Me Lullabies' on which Kate duets with Richard Thompson from Fairport Convention. Though mooted as a folk song, the ¾ waltz time gives this a country and western feel.
Another traditional song 'Jolly Plough Boys' is nowhere near as jolly as the title implies. Neither is 'Sho Heen' though it's a much better song with a real Celtic feel and slight country and western overtones from the electric slide guitar accompaniment. Eddi Reader joins Kate again on this one and their voices blend remarkably well and raise it from the mundane to the beautiful.
The final song on disc 1 features Kate's husband, Damien O'Kane. 'Bitter Boy' begins with a quiet piano and fiddle introduction before Kate's husky tones join in, first alone and later in duet. The pace slows down even more for this beautiful ballad which again sounds very Celtic. The addition of the fiddles gives a much more orchestrated sound. I love this song, it's very poignant in that 'Danny Boy' Irish tradition and it's perfectly suited to be the last song on the disc because one wants a period of quiet introspection after listening to it.
Disc 2 begins with a bit of self-indulgence in the form of Kate's daughter singing 'Ba-ba Black Sheep', very cute but I could have well done without it. 'I Courted a Sailor' is the first of only two upbeat songs on the entire album and is a cheerful little ditty in the tradition of the sea shanty although the backing which includes those dreadful panpipes does sort of drown out Kate's vocals at times.
The following couple of tracks, 'Mockingbird' and 'The Good Man' are pleasant enough but really contain nothing to make them stand out as anything special. 'Annan Water' is traditional folk at its best, however, with beautifully understated backing and vocal accompaniment. To my mind 'All God's Angels' is the worse song on the album and least said about it the better. It's followed by the second of the more upbeat songs and it comes as a welcome relief from the mournful. With 'Wild Goose', we're back to the melancholy, however.
American singer Mary Chapin Carpenter guests on 'Home' though it's difficult to pick out her voice as it so closely matches Kate's that it almost sounds like double tracking. Kate's own composition 'Underneath the Stars' is a beautiful ballad with a very atmospheric backing from the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. It begins softly and the brass gradually swells in sound adding a very 'Hovis' feel to the whole thing.
The album ends with 'Bring Me a Boat'. It's a great choice for a final song as it's one which relies almost entirely upon the voice and Kate Rusby certainly has a beautiful one. It's in turn husky, clear and sweet and the way she sometimes just misses hitting a note correctly adds to rather than takes away from the charm of it.
Kate is currently on a UK tour and I've got tickets for her Basingstoke gig next week. I'm hoping to hear live some of the songs collected here. I've seen her before in concert and I know she won't disappoint.
I can't really see this album appealing to everyone; it's far too niche for that, concentrating as it does more on the traditional aspects of folk rather than the contemporary but it's an excellent collection nevertheless. It does suffer from being rather one dimensional and very downbeat with only two songs which could be remotely described as cheerful and personally I would have liked to see included a couple of Kate's songs which I'd have considered essential in any sort of greatest hits collection, most notably her excellent cover of Sandy Denny's 'Who Knows Where the Time Goes' and the cheerful 'Village Green Preservation Society'. However, if you're feeling in a quiet and thoughtful frame of mind, you can do worse than listen to this
In terms of stars, this actually falls just short of 4 stars which is why I've gone for 3 stars. This is a good album but really could have done with a bit more variety of sound.