KATE RUSBY – Angels & Men (Pure PRCD44)

Angels & MenBringing the 25th anniversary of her music career to date to a sparkling finale, Kate Rusby sees the year out with Angels & Men, her fourth Christmas album, again featuring a collection of predominantly South Yorkshire carols, but, this time, produced by husband Damien O’Kane with what she calls “an iridescent twinkle”.

Twinkle it most certainly does on the opening gambit of ‘Hark Hark’, the crispness burnished by the mulled wine warmth of cornet, French horn, Flugel horn and tuba, complemented by euphonium, diatonic accordion and, special guest from the Alison Krauss Band, Ron Block on banjo.

The album marks another first in featuring a Christmas standard in the jaunty form of Sammy Chan and Jule Styne’s festive chestnut, ‘Let It Snow’, given her own Barnsley sheen and, again featuring the brass section, a folksy instrumental interpolation.

Changing the ambience for a more brooding, portentous tone, featuring O’Kane on guitar, Duncan Lyle on moog with Josh Clark on percussion, ‘Paradise’ returns to the South Yorkshire canon for what is, in fact, a variation on ‘Down In Yon Forest’, a Renaissance carol about the nativity based on the Middle English hymn, the ‘Corpus Christi Carol’. And, on the subject of variations, things take a playful turn for ‘The Ivy And The Holly’, a cover of Kipper Family member Chris Sugden’s witty riposte to the evergreen carol as having “no good points between ‘em!” from their 1989 album Arrest These Merry Gentlemen.

Rusby, of course, recorded the original carol on Sweet Bells, her 2008 Christmas album, and the lively ‘Sweet Chiming Bells’ is, in fact a revisiting of the title track in a fuller brass arrangement, basically ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks’ with an added Yorkshire village chorus and renamed after the tune.

The words written in 1858 by Edward Caswell and set to the tune of ‘Humility’ in 1871 by John Goss, ‘See Amid The Winter Snow’ is also known as ‘Hymn For Christmas Day’, the simple cascading brass arrangement here perfectly capturing the theme of purity.

Featuring a circling guitar pattern from O’Kane with Nick Cooke on accordion although credited as traditional, the first two verses and chorus of ‘Rolling Downward’ are actually taken from the lyrics by 19th century Pennsylvanian hymnalist Robert Lowry with Rusby providing an amendment to the third.

Another familiar festive number arrives ‘Deck The Halls’, Clark laying down the rhythmic bedrock with the brass section and Aaron Jones on bouzouki adding extra joie de vivre to its fa la la la la. Then, things take another contemporary turn with a sleigh bells feel to Richard Thompson’s ‘We’ll Sing Hallelujah’, reclaiming its somewhat depressive and downbeat lyrics about mortality and investing it with a jubilant feel.

Introduced by a sample her young daughter Daisy saying banjo over and over, the light-hearted ‘Santa Never Brings Me A Banjo’ is another cover, this time from Canadian singer-songwriter David Myles, taken at a more measured tempo and featuring Block again on banjo, this time joined by Sierra Hull on mandolin.

The album ends with two Rusby originals. Clocking at just under six minutes, the slow waltzing ‘Let The Bells Ring’ is a bittersweet mingling of sadness at the passing of the year and the hope of the one beginning, Anton Davis on piano as it gathers to a swelling orchestral brass crescendo. The final track reprises Barnsley’s very own Yorkshire tea-drinking super-hero first featured on last year’s Life In A Paper Boat, returning for ‘Big Brave Bill Saves Christmas’ as he variously melts Sid the bad snowman with a pot of tea, saves Daisy and sister Phoebe from the thin ice over the lake and digs Santa out of a Lapland snowdrift, bringing it all to a climax with military drums and a flourish of brass. And, in good super-hero movie tradition, stay on for that extra little bonus after the final note. To borrow the name of well-known dessert, as the sleeve photo suggests, this is an Angel Delight.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.katerusby.com

‘Sweet Bells’ – live: