With Underneath the Stars
, her first studio album since 2001's Little Lights
, Kate Rusby takes a massive step forward. Like her fellow north-easterner Eliza Carthy
, she's still plundering a folk back-catalogue that stretches back several hundred years and finding many a narrative to delight and amuse. But unlike Carthy, who attempts to inject a youthful wildness into this ancient music, Rusby concentrates on the purest, clearest performance of her chosen songs. Tastefully employing accordions, citterns, banjos and mandolins, as well as Eddi Reader
and members of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, Underneath the Stars
does achieve a quiet but deeply moving clarity.
All the instruments, like Rusby's sweet voice, are geared only to move along these stories of lovers separated by water, press gangs and death. What really lifts the album to extraordinary heights, though, is the exceptional quality of the songs Rusby has written herself. While "Young James" and "Polly" fit easily among the older tales of perpetually unrequited love, both "Falling" and the closing title track are crushingly beautiful love songs with an enlightened twist, both grieving and glad. Really, they're stunningly good, close to holy, clearly very personal for Rusby but evocative enough to draw the listener helplessly inside. --Dominic Wills