Britain’s wonderful folk artist Kate Rusby has mesmerized fans for more than a decade with her glistening renditions of old, old stories, accompanied by old, old instruments, that have—despite modern marketing theory—galvanized an impressive cache of young, young listeners attracted to her modest beauty and stubborn respect for a long-lasting musical and cultural tradition.
On the surface, the task seems too easy: put the lass in front of a quality microphone, hand-pick a few of the isles’ most talented musicians, and sing and play—a winning formula that allows Rusby’s distinctive voice to clearly elucidate tales of love lost to the surrounding Little Lights, this shy angel tinkered with that formula, to moderate success. But, to Compass Records’ credit, Rusby and her clan, including her husband and producer John McCusker and her brother and sound engineer Joe, are allowed to manage their own way. This new album, Underneath The Stars is, as if n’arly possible, Rusby’s finest effort yet—a declaration of musical adulthood.
Simply, Rusby and McCusker take one step back to move two forward. The relatively austere arrangements take the singer to where she started, the delightfully fresh Hourglass that established her as Britannia’s new formidable folk force. Stars, though, evinces a matured Rusby who takes a few more chances with her delivery while operating within her most comfortable contexts. With the possible exception of the first tune, “The Goodman,” which opens with a scratchy, slightly funky riff, this new album is shorn of pop nuances that distanced Little Lights slightly from the indigenous folk elements of Rusby’s earlier recordings. The focus here is on Rusby’s beautiful voice and her ever-maturing ability to illuminate and compose tragic tales, serving as a voice for the forlorn.
Besides her multi-talented hubby, Rusby is backed by the first cut of Britain’s folk elite, including sterling performances by guitar-mandolin wiz Ian Carr and double bassist Ewan Vernal. Indeed, just halfway through the opener, the performance is entrenched in the unfettered scraping lovers of British folk die for. Throughout the CD, especially on Rusby’s compositions “Young James” and “Falling,” Carr sets the tone, deftly intertwining his nifty notes with Kate’s lilting narrations while Vernal’s subtle vamping brings a contrapuntal balance to Rusby’s tragic balladeering. All of this takes place in the midst of McCusker’s expressive bowing and Andy Cutting’s accordion backdrops. Two other Rusby-worded madrigals, including the intimate, wry title song (“Underneath the stars I’ll greet you … Before you go of your own free will / Go gently”), are underscored by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band’s eloquent brass.
In the end, McCusker’s greatest production achievement is similar to what the finest artists, photographers, and chefs have done—let the beauty shine, adorned yet unencumbered by sensitively crafted accompaniment. That’s all his luminous wife needs to make a great album, which Underneath The Stars certainly is.
| jeff cebulski