If there’s one name that needs no introduction on these pages, it’s Kate Rusby. With an audience that spans all generations and all musical tastes; and a repertoire that’s as rich, imaginative and, at times, adventurous, as any performer taking to studio or stage, Kate Rusby is one of our most talented and popular folk singers. Confirmation of just why that broad appeal has sustained for over twenty years is her latest studio album, released via her Pure Records label on 17th May, Philosophers, Poets & Kings.
The album’s opener, Jenny, is as typical as it is delightful. Kate takes the ballad of Creeping Jen, moves the eponymous horse to Yorkshire, and adds a chorus along with her own, perky, melody. From an understated opening, Kate’s clear voice rings out, before beats and brass build from a singalong chorus. Further enriched by the added voices of Ron Block’s banjo, and Damien O’Kane’s soft backing vocals, it’s a classic Kate Rusby approach to song that reaps wonderful rewards. Yorkshire Jenny is a joy. Deft programming from Anthony Davis, a big bass drum, and an irresistible backbeat make wonderfully light work of a remix (aye, a remix) later in the album too.
Philosophers, Poets & Kings pays melodious homage to Kate’s home, her family, and those who’ve inspired and encouraged her music, in a 12 track album of traditional and self-written songs – with a brace of well-chosen cover versions for good measure. Damien O’Kane’s production masterfully brings together the talents of the large gathering of usual suspects: Duncan Lyall (double bass, Moog), Nick Cooke (Accordion) Josh Clark (percussion) Gary Wyatt (cornet), and Rich Evans (Flugelhorn). Ron Block and Michael McGoldrick add their own inimitable contributions to Jenny, and there are even more guest appearances to come.
Kate celebrates the fruit of the vine by adding her own melody to another fine trad song, in the album’s title track, Philosophers, Poets & Kings. Driven, initially, by Damien’s acoustic guitar, there’s added impetus from Josh’s percussion for a song where Diogenes, Aristotle and Plato are held aloft as examples of the truth, laughter and, of course, cognitive dexterity that can be attributed to wine consumption. There’s another drop of something warming in The Farmer’s Toast, which Kate dedicates to the farming family who host the annual Underneath the Starsfestival at Cinder Hill Farm, Cawthorne. There are so many slight variations on this song out there, it’s a joy to hear Michael McGoldrick and Ron Block join Kate & co enjoy the song with such cheer. ‘The Lark is my daily alarmer‘ is easily my own favourite rhyme for ‘farmer.’
On a more sombre note, Bogey’s Bonnie Belle is a popular bothy ballad Kate recalls from her childhood. It’s a sad tale, sorrowfully told, and sparsely augmented by Damien’s electric tenor guitar, Duncan’s Moog, and typically elegant whistles of Ross Ainslie.
The first of the two cover versions on the album has been with Kate since she used to join her Dad at festival sound desks. No one takes on an iconic Richard Thompson song like Crazy Man Michael lightly, but one of Kate’s first solo tours was as his support, and this has been a favourite song since her childhood. Josh’s percussion adds an ethereal feel that’s enhanced by the dream-like, insubstantial vocal and Ross’s mournful whistle. It’s an absolute triumph, of course, but the far bigger surprise was Noel Gallagher’s Don’t Go Away. With just Kate’s voice and Damien’s electric tenor guitar, the song is superbly soft, beautifully sparse, and with an edge of plaintive appeal in Kate’s voice for the chorus. Seventeen albums on, there are still times when Kate Rusby’s voice gives me goosebumps.
Kate’s own songs for the album remind us that her gift for pairing fine lyrics with an enchanting melody never diminishes. Until Morning sparkles like starlight; a beautiful song of togetherness, of a bond that brings strength and solace; sung from the heart, with Damien’s soft harmonies. Until Morning finds its perfect partner in another song of comfort, As The Lights Go Out, where Sam Kelly’s mellow voice works beautifully alongside Kate’s, and Chas Mackenzie’s haunting electric guitar contrasts perfectly with Damien’s unobtrusive banjo.
The first of two locally inspired songs is a comic tale, The Squire And The Parson, based on an old story that Kate’s been singing with her Dad, Steve, for years; and they’ve finally decided it’s ready for a public outing. As Kate displays her usual winning way with a good story, Nick Cooke’s accordion and Michael McGoldrick’s whistles help animate the tale. In contrast, informed by Kate’s awareness of Alzheimer’s, The Wanderer is a beautifully gentle song, and perfectly unhurried.
To close the album, Kate takes us back to 1838, and a song written to commemorate the 180th anniversary of the Huskar Pit disaster, where twenty-six working children lost their lives trying to escape from the mine during a freak storm. Halt The Wagons was written as a lullaby to the 15 boys and 11 girls, aged 7-17, whose deaths led to reforms prohibiting underground working for children under 10 years old. Among the shivering sadness of the song, there’s warm brass and, far more evocatively, the voices of 26 members of the Barnsley Youth Choir. The choir, 15 boys and 11 girls, aged 7-17, joined Kate and the musicians underground at the National Coal and Mining Museum to record the song. Kate doesn’t sing this to break our hearts; she sings it to tell a story that has to be told, that we must never, ever forget. Nonetheless, tears will flow – and so they should.
It comes as no surprise that Kate Rusby’s 17th studio album should be such an impressive work. She continues to apply her exquisite voice to a meticulous selection of songs, including her own; and she maintains her drive to make tangential journeys into new territory while maintaining that unshakeable bond to her musical heritage. Philosophers, Poets & Kings doesn’t see Kate Rusby channel her inner prog to the same extent as we enjoyed on Life In A Paper Boat. There is, though, a rewarding balance between the comforting warmth of her acoustic performances, and the sonic opportunities offered by modern electronics, and those who wield them so effectively. Philosophers, Poets & Kings is an utterly delightful album; I begin to suspect that this is one of Kate Rusby’s finest albums. So far, anyway – the next 17 are sure to be full of surprises.
“Wall Of Death” puts quite a spin, literally and figuratively, on the idea of marriage as a wild ride.
There are many albums that are called “breakup” albums even though the biographical circumstances don’t quite ring true. Bob Dylan would remain married to wife Sara for several years after Blood On The Tracks, just as Bruce Sprinsgteen’s first marriage wouldn’t crumble for almost a full year after the release of Tunnel Of Love.
Still, the music on those albums seemed to reveal the fissures of those relationships, fissures that would eventually become irreparable cracks. So it was that Richard Thompson wrote the material for Shoot Out The Lights, released in 1982, a year prior to the actual dissolution of his marriage to Linda Thompson. And yet, as Linda eventually told Rolling Stone, “It was kind of a subliminal thing. I think we both were miserable and didn’t quite know how to get it out. I think that’s why the album is so good. We couldn’t talk to each other, so we just did it on the record.”
The structure on the album, which has come to be regarded as one of the finest of the ’80s, plays into that narrative, with Richard singing one song to seemingly give his side of the story, and Linda then answering with her own take. But it culminates in the two harmonizing on “Wall Of Death,” which, despite the ominous title, sends the album out on an almost celebratory note. For it suggests that a relationship brimming with vibrant emotions, even the negative ones, is preferable to one that grinds along amiably without the highs and lows.
In the world of carnivals, the Wall of Death is an attraction that features motorcycles wheeling around a silo-shaped structure, seeming to defy gravity because of the cylindrical force. Richard makes it a kind of metaphor for liberty: “On the Wall of Death, all the world is far from me,” he and Linda sing in the bridge. “On the Wall of Death, it’s the nearest to being free.”
A mid-tempo rocker with typically tough and lyrical lead guitar from Richard, “Wall Of Death” compares the titular ride to other popular attractions. “Well, you’re going nowhere when you ride on the carousel,” the pair sing in the second verse. “And maybe you’re strong, but what’s the use of ringing a bell.” Also: “The Tunnel of Love might amuse you/And Noah’s Ark might confuse you.”
The most dangerous rides might cause the most tumult but, ultimately, they’re the most invigorating, or so the song implies. “You can waste your time on the other rides,” they sing. “But this is the nearest to being alive.” If you are indeed going to read Shoot Out The Lights as a kind of meta commentary on a crumbling marriage, the last song suggests that there might be recriminations and rebuttals but ultimately there are no regrets.
Note also how the lyrics ask, “Let me ride on the Wall of Death one more time.” Looking at the song on its own, it seems the narrator just wants to go around again. But in the context of the entire album, that line could be read as two people indulging in this last queasy, yet thrilling, go-round before they move on. In any case, “Wall Of Death” puts quite a spin, literally and figuratively, on the idea of marriage as a wild ride.