Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Kate Rusby: Hourglass

Back in the ‘90s, I managed a CD store where the only other employee was the owner. While our musical tastes would occasionally clash in the no man’s land between hair metal and Bob Dylan, we did our best to remain open-minded, and even learned a few things in the process.
Being an independent store, one of the only ways we could fend off competition from the chains was by maintaining a “lean but choice” inventory of music that wasn’t always representative of that week’s copy of Billboard. Even The Artist One Day Known As John Mayer would credit us, begrudgingly, for widening his peripheral vision past Stevie Ray Vaughan and Dave Matthews. (We tried, anyway.)
Such hands-on customer service went both ways, and often we’d heed the advice of our patrons, and discover an obscure treasure. This was the case with Hourglass by Kate Rusby, which apparently was a huge hit in England a full year before a customer asked about it in time for its American distribution.
With not much else released that particular Tuesday in August, we opened a copy and put it on. We were immediately entranced and even misty-eyed from beginning to end. It’s an absolutely lovely collection of traditional Celtic songs and adaptations framed by Ms. Rusby’s angelic voice and gentle acoustic guitar, plus other accompaniment.
It really does wow on first listen—the cheerful “fa la lanky down dilly” of “Sir Eglamore” leads into the hardly hackneyed “As I Roved Out”. “Jolly Ploughboys” gains momentum as any good work song should, and the sea tale of “Annan Waters” uses pipes and piano to mask the sadness beneath. “Stananivy” is a charming jig paired with a dancing lyric about “Jack & Jill”.
The centerpiece of the album is an original, the heartbreaking “A Rose In April”. Delivered as a dialogue-style ballad, the tragedy unfolds slowly and vividly. As moving as it is, the happier portrait of “Radio Sweethearts” provides a nice lift. If there’s a clunker on the album, it would be “I Am Stretched On Your Grave”, a traditional song given a new melody but partially credited to Sinead O’Connor. “Old Man Time” is another original, and a striking observation from someone so young. “Drowned Lovers” begins with the unmistakable sound of someone tuning their E-string, neatly folded into the rest of the tune. An accordion, not usually our favorite instrument, accompanies “Bold Riley” to the end of the album.
It’s probably not possible to convey just what a pleasant surprise this album was at the time, but even fifteen years later it still has the power to move. Hourglass is simply lovely, and in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I will always be indebted to that customer—whoever she was—who’d special-ordered this.

Kate Rusby Hourglass (1997)—

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