I must confess, that for quite some time, I was at a loss for words regarding this album. Several times, I started to form an opinion, and then found myself doing a complete about-face in terms of feelings and opinion. It took me half a dozen listenings at the very least before I felt confident enough to come right out and state my feelings here.
On one hand, I love Sleepless. On the other, I hate it. Sometimes it had me listening enraptured, and there were times when I had to lunge for the power switch to rid myself of the music. And that, my friends, is where the problem lies. It’s hard to remain ambivalent about Rusby’s latest CD. It will evoke a response of some sort, whether it’s fascination or disgust, or even frustration.
Let me make an aside for a moment. Sleepless has, according to my sources, won Best Album, -and- Folk Singer of the Year for Rusby, from the U.K. National Folk Awards for 1999. This means that someone out there honestly believes in Kate Rusby and her talent. However, I didn’t know this while listening to the album itself. So my opinions continue to remain unbiased by awards or accolades.
Kate Rusby, for those not in the know, is an up-and-coming English folk singer anbd songwriter, who’s taken the English folk scene by storm, starting with her debut album, Hourglass. She’s made a name for herself in only a few short years, helping found the band The Equation, working on an album with Kathryn Roberts (entitled Kate Rusby and Kathryn Roberts, it won Folk Roots Magazine’s Album of the Year Award), and touring with the group, The Poozies.
So what’s the buzz? I’ll tell you what’s the buzz. It’s her voice. Kate Rusby has the voice of an angel, as cliched a statement as that may be. It’s hypnotic, luxurious; and it caresses the listener like an familiar lover. It’s almost addictive in its own way, and, thank goodness, she knows how to use it. Instead of obscuring it with too many instrumentals, she’s accompanied by simple instruments, such as guitar, flute, mandolin and percussion. Most of the time, you’ll be so busy listening to the voice that you’ll barely notice the omnipresent background instruments — as well it should be.
Alas, strength is also weakness. For if the voice is what you notice the most, then occasionally it’s too strong, too present for its own good. When that happens, it becomes intrusive and even tiring. One can only take so much of a good thing.
Rusby’s songs are a mixture of traditional work and her own writing. As such, they reflect a mixture of old and new, then and now, yesterday and today. The first song, a traditional by the name of “The Cobbler’s Daughter,” is probably my hands-down favorite, a lively little tune that sounds so happy and innocent, until you listen to the lyrics a lot closer. Then it reveals a dark and twisted turn, a morbid ending that’s sure to shiver a few bones. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read the lyrics in the liner booklet and realized just what I’d been listening to.
You’ll find that a lot in Sleepless. Take no surface appearances for granted. The more you make a first impression, the more it’ll get yanked out from underneath you. Take “All God’s Angels,” for example. On the surface, it is an absolutely stunning duet sung between Rusby and guest musician Tim O’Brian. Something of a love song, you’d think. Not so, but a heart-breaking tale of a man, his pregnant mistress, his wife, and suicide. Gee, thanks, Kate. Way to cheer us up.
Seriously, though. “Sweet Bride” ends happily ever after, with a man on a horse carrying off a woman to his castle under the sea. Now, I’ll take that as a happy ending. Ah, love. Unless, of course, there’s a twist I haven’t quite caught. Rusby’s songs are evocative, beautiful, speak of the traditional ballads and stories, and are surprisingly complex in some ways.
“The Duke and the Tinker,” for example, is about a duke who finds a tinker asleep by the side of the road, takes him home, cleans him up, and treats the befuddled man like a king. He gets the tinker drunk, and tosses him back to the side of the road, the whole experience to seem like the dream. Now, does this sound familiar? A-ha! Shakespeare. The prologue to Taming of the Shrew. I got you this time, Kate. I’m on to your sneaky tricks.
Yes, I enjoyed this album. I enjoyed it a great deal. As I’ve said, I’m fascinated by Rusby’s voice. Unfortunately, not every song is a winner. “Sho Heen,” which appears to be cast as something of a quiet lullaby, only serves to grate against my nerves and give me a headache. It’s at least three minutes too long, and I found myself wanting to forward past it after one listening.
The good songs are very good, and the bad songs are equally bad. At least Rusby doesn’t do anything in half-measures. I can certainly respect that.
Also appearing on this album are the aforementioned Tim O’Brien (vocals, mandolin), Roger Wilson (vocals, guitar), Dave Burland (vocals), Ian Carr (guitar), John McCusker (fiddles, banjo) and others. However, Rusby provides the majority of the vocals, as well as acoustic guitar, and piano.
Is this good? Yes. Is it worthy of the awards it’s garnered? I’m not going to argue. Sleepless is worth a look and a listen. Just don’t get too complacent while listening to it, and you’ll be fine.