As she turns 50, Light Years marks Rusby’s seventh Christmas album, her 22nd in total, and again features a mix of (mostly) originals and her distinctive take on seasonal favourites, produced as ever by Damien O’Kane, who contributes vocals and guitars, and accompanied by her regular assemblage of musicians along with brass and a couple of special guests.
Although inexplicably titled ‘Spean’ (an archaic word for wean not to mention a cow’s nipple), the opening track is, in fact, given a couple of lyrical and tune changes, the traditional ‘Brightest And Best’, a hymn written in 1811 by the Anglican bishop Reginald Heber to be sung at the feast of Epiphany, a suitably joyous reading with tuba, euphonium, cornet, and French and Flugel horns. Taking the instrumentation down to just guitars, keys and percussion, the first self-penned number is the slow walking rhythm and chorus soaring ‘Glorious’ which, set in a winter landscape, imagines an angel that fell to earth and damaged their wings, but is essentially about renewal, the loss of loved ones and those who need to reach out to.
It’s on then to an evergreen, the brass section returning for a dreamy, light footed dance through ‘It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year’; perhaps best known from the Andy Williams recording on his first Christmas album, this though has slightly slower tempo while retaining that upbeat glow. Another Rusby rewrite comes with ‘Rusby Shepherds’, revamping the tune with a Yorkshire feel, and O’Kane’s banjo joining the brass, and adding a chorus of her own.
Her special guests arrive in the form of Alison Krause and Ron Block contributing vocals and 5-string banjo to the synth of a song she first sang aged 15 in a Mystery Plays production, ‘The Moon Shines Bright’, a new year carol collected by Lucy Broadwood from a gypsy family around 1893, though perhaps wisely omitting the bit about being eaten by worms and, save for one verse, the themes of mortality in what is a pretty extensive lyrical rewrite, the stately pace punctuated by an eruption of percussion , tenor guitars and glockenspiel midway.
Though memories of ‘Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree’ have been permanently scarred for many by the Mel Smith and Kim Wilde atrocity, Kate goes some way to salving the pain with a version that romp along with what might be described as a wassailing Yorkshire morris meets reggae lurch that interpolates Sleigh Ride into the carousing. Duncan Lyall’s warbling moogs, piano and synths anchor her slow waltzing restyling of ‘The First Noel’ as ‘Nowell, Nowell’, the guitars chiming as the brass take up the melody in the bridge.
There’s no ‘Big Brave Bill’ this year, but playfulness is not overlooked with her version of ‘Arrest Ye Merry Gentlemen’, a titularly obvious parody by Chris Sugden (Sid Kipper in another life) in which some sourpuss complains about the rowdy carousing to one Constable Joy. That’s followed by two further covers, first up being Kate on a shimmering glock (as in spiel as opposed to the automatic pistol) for Chris De Burgh’s ‘A Spaceman Came Travelling’ followed by another playful excursion with ooompah brass in ‘Nothin’ For Christmas’ a novelty number about a naughty child by Sid Tepper and Roy C. Bennet (as ‘Nuttin’ For Christmas’) which Shirley Temple recorded in 1934, and incredibly charted by five different artists in 1955, Art Mooney and His Orchestra, with six-year-old Barry Gordon as vocalist peaking at No.6 and becoming a million seller, while more recent versions have appeared by Plain White T’s and Less Than Jake.
It ends with a Rusby original, just herself and Damien on guitar and glockenspiel returning to the nativity with Joseph, repositioning him with an equal role in the story and the angels informing him he’s going to be a dad. Rusby’s Christmas albums are a constant delight and this is no exception; Light Years has a real festive buzz.
Artist’s website: www.katerusby.com
‘Glorious’ – official video: