Unquestionably my favourite female folk singer of her generation, traditional or otherwise, dubbed the Barnsley Nightingale, her pure voice never seeking to disguise her Yorkshire vowels, Rusby has been plying her trade for 24 years. Life In A Paper Boat is her 14th studio album, one which, while hewing to familiar tropes, nevertheless sets sail for new boundaries. This time round, husband Damien O’Kane had more time to experiment with the production, adding in sounds and effects that could be reproduced on stage, most specifically in areas of non drum percussion, courtesy of Josh Clark, and in extensive use of moog by bassist Duncan Lyall, enrobing the traditional with the contemporary.
As ever, the material is a mix of originals and traditional numbers, the title track, like many a recent folk album, inspired by the migrant crisis, but also serving as a springboard for other images and themes. Her repository of ballads provides the source for the album’s 17th century opener, ‘Benjamin Bowmaneer’, string section, bouzouki and diatonic accordion providing the backing for an rhythmically heady nonsense story of a tailor who fought for England with a horse made from a sheer board, a bridle of scissors and a needle as a spear, sometimes also known as ‘The Tailor And The Louse’, in which the flea represents his wife.
The first of the self-penned number, the yearningly delicate, slow waltzing ‘Hunters Moon’, takes on equally symbolic imagery, going cosmic in the use of the sun and the moon as metaphors for unrequited lovers, then it’s back to the traditional for her own musical setting of ‘The Ardent Shepherdess’, a dreamy, suitably pastoral arrangement that features a banjo interlude from Ron Block.
Maybe it’s because we’re a approaching Christmas, but the title track has a carol feel, O’Kane’s tenor electric guitar providing the tune’s foundation, Cooke’s accordion surfacing midway as Rusby sings of a widowed mother and her child, an ancient land “left behind in ruins” and a tentative note of hope in the prospect of the promised land to which they sail. The sea is at the heart of another of the originals, this time claiming the narrator’s life in the breathily-sung traditional coloured ‘The Mermaid’, one of the tracks to make extensive and effective use of moog and programming as well as featuring guest harmony vocals from Dan Tyminski.
Starting faintly before Anthony Davis’s keys enter the picture, Lyall’s double bass. O’Kane strummed acoustic and Steven Iveson’s electric guide Rusby’s melodic setting of the lover’s pledge ‘Hundred Hearts’. It’s credited as “words trad & K Rusby”, though, given Google failed to identify any folk song by that name or with similar lines, the traditional springboard in question may well be the anonymous valentine’s card epigram “A hundred hearts would be too few / To carry all my love for you.”
Firmly traditional in origin as well as sound, featuring accordion and Michael McGoldrick on whistle and flute, the mid-tempo ‘Pace Egging Song’ stems from the West Yorkshire Easter tradition (Pace derives from Pacha, the Latin for Easter) of performing Pace Egg Village plays wherein St George takes on all comers, here including Lord Nelson, Jolly Jack Tar and Old Miser and is, essentially, a beer begging number.
The last of the traditional numbers, another steeped in celestial imagery, ‘Night Lament’, again sees Rusby adapting the words and providing the tune, arranged for viola, fiddle and cello, and again one for which I cannot trace the source material.
Not traditional as such, but certainly getting on a few years, the longest track here, at over six minutes, is, accompanied solely by electric tenor, moog and double bass an atmospheric, a version of Archie Fisher’s epic narrative ‘The Witch of Westmoreland’, originally featured on his 1976 album. The Man With The Rhyme, and later popularised by Stan Rogers, which tells of a how a wounded knight is led by various animal guides to the witch who can heal him in both flesh and spirit.
The remaining two ‘official’ numbers are both by Rusby, the jaunty but reflective ‘Only Desire What You Have’ (which about not pursuing greed rather than about just accepting your lot) again featuring Tyminski, McGoldrick and Block, while, the most experimental sounding in its programming and percussion, ‘I’ll Be Wise’, a familiar tale of a girl beguiled and betrayed, plays out rather like a slow shanty sway.
There is, though, a bonus track, one on which Rusby’s playfulness sparks through, ‘Big Brave Bill’, which, set to a military beat with Yorkshire brass flourishes of cornet, flugel horn, French horn, tuba and euphonium, tells of Barnsley’s own super-hero performing such derring do feats as rescuing a lad from the mud, a trapped miner and, most notably, old Mrs Dobbins from Dearneside who found herself in Mallorca, served with a cup of warm water, lifeless tea bag and UHT milk until Bill swooped in with a kettle and some good old Yorkshire Tea. These adventures, as well as sending off a flying saucer, can be thoroughly enjoyed with the accompanying animation at www.bigbravebill.com. Kate Rusby, folk music’s proper brew.
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Artist’s website: www.katerusby.com
‘Only Desire What You Have’ – official video: