KATE RUSBY – Holly Head (Pure PRCD57)

Holly HeadHaving already released the excellent Philosophers, Poets & Kings, Rusby returns with her second album of the year, the fifth in her ongoing biennial festive series that again, produced by Damien O’Kane, mixes Yorkshire variants of well-known carols with both obscure and her own seasonal songs. Substituting ‘People Awake’ for ‘Christians Awake’ and with a few other lyrical variations, she gets the celebrations underway with the brass-polished ‘Salute The Happy Morn’, written in 1745 by Broughton-born John Byron for his daughter Dorothy and retitled from ‘Christmas Day For Dolly’ when John Wainright set it to music around 1766.

The first of the three originals comes with a reminder that ‘Christmas Is Merry’, sleigh bells putting in an early appearance behind the cascading chords and swayalong melody, while, set to the traditional tune ‘Noel Nouvoulet’ and accompanied by an icy piano note, muted drums and minimal guitar, ‘The Holly King’ has an almost liturgical feel to its account of the pagan mythic archetype, a precursor of Santa Claus, representing the second half of the year, forever battling his adversary the Oak King.

There’s only three traditional carols proper, the first arriving with ‘Yorkshire Three Ships’, which is, of course, ‘I Saw Three Ships’, here merrily lolloping down the street to a circling guitar pattern as the instrumentation gradually builds, complemented by the cascading notes of a gently lullabying five-minute ‘Bleak Mid-Winter (Yorkshire)’, Christina Russell’s words set to music by Gustav Holst, the number gradually swelling with the arrival of the warming brass, and a fingerpicked minstrel-like ‘While Shepherds Watched’ (her sixth different version). A similar period atmosphere (with almost a Slavic air) enfolds the traditional, echoey-sung, ‘Lu Lay’, better known as either ‘The Wexford Carol’ or ‘The Coventry Carol’, while ‘Celestial Hearts’ (“We’ll tune our hearts and raise our voice”) is a Yorkshire variant (Worrall and Oughtibridge to be exact) of ‘New Celestial’, sparklingly arranged by Rusby and O’Kane.

Departing from carols per se, the five minute ‘I Am Christmas’ is a simple fingerpicked treatment of the 2010 song (“I am warmth and I am light/ And I am kith and kin./ I am Christmas, let me in”) co-written by lyricist Bill Meek and composer John Conolly of ‘Fiddler’s Green’ fame, and, published in 1844 in Songs, Ballads and Other Poems, ‘Mistletoe Bough’ comes from Thomas Haynes Bayly (who wrote ‘Home Sweet Home’) and Sir Henry Bishop and is based on the story of The Mistletoe Bride which, first surfacing in 1823, told of how a young bride suffocated on her wedding day when she was unable to get out of the large chest in which she was hiding. The legend has been ascribed to several different counties, but the song settles on Lovell Hall in Oxfordshire. Either way, the arrangement is more festive than the tragedy it recounts.

The album also comes with a brace of novelty numbers, first up finding her trail the gift wrap around the tuba parping silliness of the jaunty ‘Hippo For Christmas’, a Christmas hit from back in 1953 sung by 10-year-old Oklahoma City child star Gayla Peevey under the self-explanatory title ‘I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas’. A little digging reveals it’s not as obscure as you might think, with versions popping up on festive albums by the likes of Captain & Tennille, Gretchen Wilson, LeAnn Rimes, Kacey Musgraves and, surely worth seeking out, a Sesame Street duet by Big Bird and Anne Hathaway and, for Brit nostalgists, Terry Hall and Lenny The Lion.

The other, and the album’s final track, ‘B.B.B.B.’, (that’s Bill, Beryl, Belinda and Bob) continues the ongoing story of Barnsley’s own super-hero Big Brave Bill, brass section, diatonic accordion and sleigh bells providing the jaunty backing as Rusby recounts his finding love and raising a Yorkshire Tea-supping family when he himself is rescued after a near nasty husky-drawn sleigh-ride scenario. As the album cover suggests, this is a crowning glory.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.katerusby.com

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