Music Notes/By Colleen Taylor
In my book, Kate Rusby is the only artist who can get away with re-releasing past hits – in part, because her voice is arguably the most exquisite, unique and captivating in Celtic folk music today. Too much Rusby is simply never enough for me.
More to the point, Rusby never sings a song the same way twice—redundancy is simply not in her repertoire. For instance, when Rusby released her anniversary album “20” in 2012, she rearranged all her greatest hits into entirely new tracks.
Her anniversary album became a brand new studio album with an innovative, distinctive style. Now the “Queen of Folkies” has done the very same exercise with her Christmas music. “Angels and Men,” released in November, is Rusby’s fourth Christmas album and it contains re-mastered versions of songs she’s recorded on past albums, such as “Sweet Bells” (2008). Although the lyrics may be the same, the likeness ends there. Rusby has reworked some of her greatest holiday hits into fresh, new, interesting jingles—ones that sound nothing like the originals.
Very few things make me more excited than a new Kate Rusby album, but when I first looked at the track list for “Angels and Men,” I felt a brief sense of disappointment. These are songs I already listen to each Christmas, I thought.
That disappointment quickly dissipated as soon as my earphones were in. I experienced the most pleasing dissonance—recognizing lyrics I had learned by heart in Christmases past while simultaneously hearing new, pared down arrangements for the first time. From a folk perspective, “20” is one of Rusby’s most brilliant albums because it reworks old tunes into a mature, modernized folk arrangements. The same can now be said for “Angels and Men.”
Rusby has modernized her old Christmas tunes into something that sounds contemporary, almost indie, while still maintaining her quintessential folk inflections. “Hark Hark” turns “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” into an upbeat, joyous folk tune where Rusby’s voice shines against the backdrop of French horns. In contrast, “Sweet Chiming Bells” transforms one of Rusby’s best Christmas songs, “Sweet Bells,” into a tranquil, soft interpretation.
If I hadn’t recognized the lyrics, I never would have known they were—technically speaking—the same song. Likewise, she gives universal Christmas classics like “Deck the Halls” and “Let It Snow” a Celtic, new age, almost fantastical finish.
But the most ingenious revision in “Angels and Men” is “The Ivy and the Holly”—a revision that works on both the musical and lyrical level. “The Ivy and the Holly” is literally the obverse of Rusby’s “The Holly and the Ivy” on “Sweet Bells” from 2008. It works as a parody of the earlier song, Rusby’s own self-satire. For example, she revises the lyric “Oh the holly bears a berry / as red as any blood,” into “Oh the Ivy has a berry /As black as any sin / It’s not much use in jams and pies / And terrible in gin.” “The Ivy and the Holly” is also the most Irish song on the album, no doubt bearing the influence of Rusby’s Irish musician husband, Damien O’Kane, who plays in her band. Here, she matches her satiric lyrics with jaunty traditional accordion chords and whimsical banjo strings. This is your perfect Christmas session song.
“Angels and Men” is brimming with mirth and whimsy throughout. It’s impossible not to smile when listening to “The Ivy and the Holly,” “Santa Never Brings me a Banjo,” or “Big Brave Bill Saves Christmas.” The latter is another satiric song of Rusby’s, a sequel to what has become one of her signature inventions: the rogue-hero character “Big Brave Bill” who drinks Yorkshire Tea, first featured on her album “Life in a Paper Boat” (2016). This composition responds to popular demand—Rusby fans have taken a shine to Big Brave Bill, making shirts, mugs, and posters in his honor.
But what’s most impressive about the Christmas joy you hear on “Angels and Men” is the subtlety. Rusby’s style on this album is subdued, unimposing, yet utterly captivating. The lyrics are artfully delivered, the instrumentation minimal but emphatic, and laughter lingers between the verses. Even after 25 years, Rusby still sounds utterly youthful, regenerating centuries-old ballads into new, modern creations.
When I first set out to write this review, I was well prepared to say that despite its merits, “Angels and Men” could not compare with Rusby’s earlier holiday albums, “Sweet Bells” and “The Frost Is All Over.” But now, after my second listen, I can no longer say this in good conscience.
Yet again, Rusby has surprised and delighted my ears. She has met the impossibly high bar her fans (like me) have set for her. She is the best voice, the best spirit, and the best composer in folk music today—and I’m happy to debate anyone who disagrees. If she isn’t on your holiday playlist, you are not experiencing Christmas cheer at full capacity. Get “Sweet Bells,” “The Frost Is All Over,” and, yes, “Angels and Men” - none of it will bore you, and no two songs will sound the same.