By Colleen Taylor
They say you can’t improve upon perfection, but that’s exactly what Kate Rusby does with each new album. No matter how many times fans can’t imagine how she’ll do it again, it happens: another round of audible perfection that leaves as permanent an impression as her last record. Christmas came early for me two weeks ago with a surprise in the post: Rusby’s “The Frost Is All Over,” her third original Christmas album. I am avid devotee of Rusby’s sophomore Christmas album, “Sweet Bells” (2008), so I confess I was a little nervous that this holiday record would disappoint my expectations. Instead, within the first few notes, I transformed into one of those flabbergasted Rusby fans, simultaneously astonished and delighted as her soft vocals permeated my apartment. She’s done it again, without repetition, without dramatics, without kitsch, without deviating from her identity as a musician, and somehow without reiterating those stereotypical holiday jingles we all know by heart.
Kate Rusby needs no introduction. Not only have I sung her praises several times here in the column, but she is one of the most famous and universally beloved folk singers in the UK and Ireland. What I love about Rusby lately, particularly in her last three albums, is her increasingly transnational sound and character. Her roots are Yorkshire through and through, but lately, she has also incorporated Celtic folk inflections, as well as more general Americana folk influence into her cohesive instrumentation. Perhaps this has to do with the influence of her traditional Irish musician husband, Damian O’Kane, who plays in her band, on all her albums and arranges a number of her songs. Rusby’s latest, “The Frost Is All Over,” contains an array of selections that easily traverse the Irish Sea and the Atlantic. It has the traditional pub Christmas songs and carols, as well as more modern Celtic folk and roots music, all topped off by a gorgeous original ballad composed by Rusby herself. This album is Rusby’s most musically diverse and adventurous yet. She’s taken a risk, but it has paid off. She has done the ostensibly impossible: she has improved upon perfection.
The album involves a first for Rusby: rock n’ roll. She reinterprets holiday classic “Winter Wonderland” as a folk-rock infusion. Brass instruments, Rusby’s soft folksy vocals, and a very distinctive electric guitar battle it out for audible domination then coalesce into a one-of-a-kind jingle. Big band brass, electric rock, and folk instruments sound like a recipe for a truly terrible rendition, but in fact, it will become one of your favorites. The song is exciting, toe-tapping, and plain wintery fun. Traditional hymn “Mount Lyngham” projects this same, unexpected genre-crossover to a truly stimulating effect. Both songs prove Rusby’s unsurpassable skill as a musician and creative visionary. She can mix unlikely pairs of instruments and match her amazing voice to their unorthodox duet.
The album’s standard Yorkshire folk songs, “Yorkshire Merry Christmas” and “Cornish Wassaling” remind the listener of Rusby’s longstanding title as the “Queen of English Folkies.” “Dilly Carol” is one of my favorite energetic tracks on the album, and the keynote banjo gives it an Americana flavor and beat. No one can bring unadulterated joy to a folk song like Kate Rusby, which makes her the perfect singer for this time of year. You will not be able to get through the first few songs without catching its infectious winter cheer. That said, the album isn’t solely a felicitous party accompaniment. As with all Rusby’s works, there is real depth to this album, which is remarkable for a Christmas record. Her original song “The Frost Is All Over” is a gorgeously melancholic ballad that captures the quiet solitude of a frosty country morning. The song reads like poetry: Rusby evokes “a cold blanket of beauty.” Her lyrics are as descriptive as her voice is emotive. This song contains a surprise too: a new age, otherworldly conversion in the middle of the track. Suddenly, her voice reverberates, becomes echo-y and ghostly. Rusby ends the album on a moment of mystery and magic—yet another feature that makes “The Frost Is All Over” an extraordinary record.
“The Frost Is All Over” is a complex, animated, eclectic folk album that also happens to be a Christmas album. First and foremost, it’s great music, and coincidentally, it’s particularly great music for this time of year. Nevertheless, “The Frost Is All Over” will be sneaking into my playlists long after December is done. It can traverse the season just as seamlessly as it traverses genre, time and space. It is hard to imagine Kate Rusby can top this album, but no doubt she’ll surprise us yet again with improved perfection in 2016.
Have a listen at katerusby.com
Nollaig shona daoibh to all! Thanks, as always, for reading.