Kate Rusby – 20 (Pure Records via Island)

Kate Rusby 20. Another celebration of 20 great years of folk, this puts Rusby’s gorgeous voice in the spotlight

4 Stars

Time: 20 Tracks / 90 minutes

What was it about 1982 that started so much talent? Both Show of Hands and Kate Rusby celebrate their 20-year milestone this month, but they sit at opposite ends of the folk spectrum. While Show of Hands celebrate with a visceral transatlantic approach that widens their range, Rusby has gently focused on what she does best and refined it.

A decade ago, she released a compilation of tracks from across her career, together with some obligatory bonus material. This time she re-works one favourite track for each of the first nineteen years, each featuring a singing partner, plus one new song.

My first impressions were that this is a disappointingly mid-tempo, drum-free affair that needed a bit of a kick or some hooks to bring Rusby’s characteristically melancholy works to life. While an element of that remains early in the second disc, every listen has brought out a new depth to these quality songs and I now view its acoustic evenness as a mood-creating virtue.

The first disc would be worth the money on its own. A delicate and cultured mix of acoustic instruments cushions Rusby’s gorgeous voice. Live, her cheeky Yorkshire banter belies those warm, clear and breathy tones that cuddle each word she sings. Given a new light and slightly funky rhythm, “Awkward Annie” starts the collection as a notably re-worked duet with Chris Thile, while the magical melody of its original disc-mate “Planets” follows a few tracks later, brightened by some strutting mandolin and Sarah Jarosz’s beautiful harmonies. With such great songs as these, “The Lark”, “Wandering Soul” (another perfect melody) and “Bitter Boy,” there are too many high points for standouts.

Each languid duet lets Rusby’s vocal breathe freely and the extra singers tone well. The most enjoyable combinations are the songs with established folk royalty, such as Eddi Reader, Dick Gaughan, Richard Thompson and Nic Jones (as well as Radiohead’s Phil Selway). The only point across both discs that jars is Paul Weller’s too-raw vocal on the catchy new song “Sun Grazers”. His lack of folk experience shows, and he stands out for the wrong reasons.

Although my review copy has no credits, some fine Danny Thompson-like bass graces several tracks, notably the traditional “Jolly Plough Boys.”

The second disc has its own highlights. It’s natural for the Barnsley Nightingale to want to include the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, but they could easily drown the smoothness of her voice. Not here; mixed down, they put “Underneath the Stars” into soft-focus. Pared back to piano and flute, the backing to “Bring Me a Boat”  brings out the reedy tones of Declan O’Rourke’s vocals as clearly as Rusby’s. In “All God’s Angels,” Paul Brady acts out a vindictive man who has got a girl pregnant and not only abandons her, but does so with heart-breakingly callous comments.

This understated project highlights what folk does best: timeless tunes sung by breathtaking voices. Plainly an ideal way in for newcomers, it still offers seasoned fans some treats that they will be playing for many years.

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