This is Kate Rusby’s third full-length album, and it showcases her growing maturity and skill as a singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist. For those of you who don’t know of Kate yet, she’s the darling of the English folk scene, helping lead a revival of interest in the tradition that she first learned as a teenager performing with her family’s ceilidh dance band. Her voice doesn’t have a very wide range, but its mixture of strength and vulnerability, husky breathiness and innocence, goes a long way toward making up for that.
Kate’s songs tend toward the darker end of the folk spectrum (both her originals and the traditionals), often telling melancholy tales of lost loves and death. Although her voice and arrangements work very well on songs of this type, I wish she’d stretch a bit and try some different fare on occasion. Still, if you don’t mind crying into your beer, Little Lights has a lot of lovely tracks. Of the songs Kate wrote, “Who Will Sing Me Lullabies” really grabbed me; in a sweet, haunting voice, Kate offers a lament for someone who meant the world to her as a child. The accompaniment, as on most of the album, is sensitive and inventive; here we have fiddle, double bass, and Tim O’Brien’s mandolin, which provides the perfect backdrop for a small voice crying out to the unfeeling heavens to bring back the one she loved.
From the traditional side, “Matt Hyland” takes up a favorite theme of Kate’s — lovers forced apart by circumstances, in this case the employers of a young man who don’t fancy the affair he’s having with their daughter. Here Kate speaks for the young woman, her voice clear, warm, and strong, but with a slight tremble that betrays her broken heart. As he does on many other songs on the album, Andy Cutting provides slow, gentle, perfectly appropriate accordion backing; Kate’s own love, John McCusker, contributes sad, sweet fiddle; and Michael McGoldrick chimes in with the loveliest whistle playing you could ask for. And keep your ears peeled for a “hidden” track at the end of the album, “The Big Ship Sails,” that features fun performances from some of the younger members of the Rusby clan.