Kate Rusby is one of the finer shining lights on the current Brit-folk scene. In fact, she might be the most well known who isn’t related to some of the country’s biggest stars from the genre’s ‘60s era. After an impressive debut, Hourglass, which got praised on both sides of the big pond, Rusby returned with more of the same, albeit crafted differently, with the Mercury Prize-nominated Sleepless. Yet, the continuing collaboration with multi-instrumentalist and producer John McCusker has never sounded better than it does on Underneath the Stars.
The dozen tracks start with the singer-songwriter “The Good Man”, a song which could have been taken from the likes of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. Rusby’s lilt is what draws the listener in, as does her fragile-yet-strong, Emmylou-lite vocals. With instruments ranging from a cittern and diatonic accordion to trumpet and flugelhorn, Rusby fully rounds out each song in a very lovable manner. Fans of the Waifs would also see a lot of perks in this effort. This momentum continues with a quasi-lament in “The Daughter of Megan”, a brilliant track that someone her age should have no business performing so well. Although penned in the 1800s, Rusby has managed to span the ancient sounds with a contemporary flavor.
“Let Me Be” is another little gem that is perhaps the “poppy” tune of the lot, although there is next to no percussion, little guitar, and gentle “la la las” courtesy of Joe Rusby and Eddi Reader. You’ll probably find yourself hitting replay before it’s even halfway over to fully appreciate what you’re hearing. Instrumentally, the foundation is laid for a deliberate building or addition of other instruments, giving it an even richer texture. Rusby attacks each song though with a quality that is so rare to consistently find song after song, making this album a winner less than a third of the way in. “Cruel” has the diminutive performer letting loose vocally just a tad more. Filling out the harmonies during the chorus is Simon Fowler, the lead singer of Brit pop band Ocean Colour Scene. “The Blind Harper” is a lengthy ballad that has whistles and more of the diatonic accordion, but it’s Ian Carr’s guitar strumming that keeps everything flowing perfectly.
The dynamic between the musicians and Rusby should never be taken for granted, particularly on the gorgeous “The White Cockade”, a song Rusby learned from her parents growing up. It has both giving the other ample space without dominating the song. The tone she gives to the song about a love torn apart by war is perfect, with her vocals and style possibly the best on the album here (which is saying a hell of a lot!). Perhaps the only slight letdown is “Young James”, which comes off as rather subdued compared to its predecessor. Regardless, you still shouldn’t skip the song—a rather simple yet pretty folk ditty that Rusby hits the ground running with. It possesses a tone that the Chieftains have perfected on recent collaboration releases.
A lot of people would see a lot of Linda Thompson in Rusby’s songs, including “Falling”, another heartfelt ballad that is simultaneously simple yet poignant. “Here I am falling, oh why I am falling / Take me to where I belong”, she sings, while McCusker’s viola and fiddle lead the backing arrangement. What might be an improvement on the strong album is a slight rearranging of the tracks. “Bring Me a Boat” would have more verve in the early portion of the album, possibly as the opening song. Regardless, it certainly holds its own with a lengthy instrumental coda. Once again, there is a pop nuance on “Polly” which a group like Sixpence None the Richer might attempt successfully. Another highlight (one of the, er, 11 thus far) is the tender Celtic ballad “Sweet William’s Ghost”, a song that seems to be a perfect complement to “The White Cockade”. Needless to say, this album will make year-end lists of 2004. And to be so talented and so young… truly spine-tingling!