Kate Rusby: 10

John Dougan

Kate Rusby


Label: Compass
US Release Date: 2003-01-07
UK Release Date: 2002-10-28

While there is probably a more technical term for it, what brings me back again and again to the work of Kate Rusby is the heartbreak in her voice. She's not alone in her ability to articulate complex emotions with the artful voicing of a single note; a standard set in the 1960s by Anne Briggs and Norma Waterson and later skillfully adapted and embellished by Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Linda Thompson, June Tabor and, more recently, Iris Dement. Placing her in this pantheon may be a tad premature (she is still only in her 20's) but her approach to this music is full of the ineffable grace and melancholy that defines the best traditional folk singing -- it's in her timbre, the grain of her voice, buoyed by her supreme confidence and an understated grace and emotionalism that adorns each word. When music critic Richard Williams of the Guardian remarked recently that Rusby possessed the most beautiful voice in England, he was not indulging in hyperbole.

A collection of live tracks, reworked older tunes, and remixes, 10 is not a step forward as much as it is a celebratory pause in recognition of a decade's worth of excellent work. Coming off 2001's stunning Mercury Prize-nominated Little Lights, it would be easy to dismiss 10 as a holding pattern, a bone thrown to fans awaiting a new record. But that would be a serious error. Since Rusby has always worked outside of the major label system (releasing records on her own Pure label out of her hometown, Barnsley in Yorkshire, which is distributed stateside by the Nashville-based label Compass), there is nothing about 10 that has a whiff of avarice or laziness, it is rather, a carefully crafted and heartfelt thank you.

Traditional folk musicians often fall victim to their own well intentioned but stifling dogmatic purism (think of Ewan MaColl), a trap that Rusby artfully eludes. The music may be "old" in that some of the source material dates back to the 17th century, but her presentation (and arrangements -- with assistance from boyfriend and Battlefield Band member John McCusker) is not dry-as-a-dusty-archive, but sounds positively modern. So tracks like "The Recruited Collier", "I Wonder What Is Keeping My True Love" (both as old as time), sound fresh and alive, thanks to Rusby's cheekiness and her deft way with a melody. (In the liner notes she opines that the tune "Drowned Lovers": "Has love, lust, death, horses, food, and even a happy tune; what more do you need from a song"?) Ultimately, it doesn't matter how old these songs are, where they come from, or who may have sung them before, by infusing them with energy and enveloping them with intimacy, Rusby makes them uniquely hers.

Sadly, we live in an era when a vocalist's "greatness" is defined by melismatic gymnastics (e.g., every bellowing American Idol contestant) as if mechanical overemoting more effectively "sells" a song than powerfully nuanced, understated singing. There is a depth of feeling on this record that vocal histrionics alone could never articulate. I'd like to think that has something to do with her growing up in Barnsley. This is, or actually was until Margaret Thatcher had her evil way, coalmining country, and the songs sung (and passed on) by generations of Yorkshire folk reveal both a stubborn toughness and shared sense of community -- the sound of plain people singing. To bring that tradition to bear, to tell these ancient stories so honestly and movingly, to reinvigorate the oldest themes in popular music is rare indeed, that Kate Rusby does it so effortlessly is nothing short of remarkable.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.