OxFolk reviews: Life in a Paper Boat

Ben Ray finds surprises in well-renowned folk musician Kate Rusby's new album Life in a Paper Boat

Kate Rusby

When one thinks of the well-established folk singer Kate Rusby, her smooth, silky tones instantly spring to mind, a voice as comfortable and comforting as a favourite jumper. Over the years Rusby has garnered many accolades, having been one of the few folk singers to be nominated for a Mercury Award, and along the way gaining the title ‘The Barnsley Nightingale’, her soft cadences leading her to carve out a unique niche in the folk world. Indeed, with her latest release Life in a Paper Boat tallying as her 14th studio album, you could perhaps be forgiven for predicting how her music might sound—but you’d be wrong. This new release by Rusby is an exciting listen, full of experimentation and showing a clear effort to forge new ground—all accompanied by Rusby’s haunting, unforgettable voice.

Throughout this album Rusby retains the ability to surprise the listener. The music is laced throughout with an intoxicating mix of darkness and humour. Haunting ballads such as ‘The Witch of Westmorland’ are contrasted against lyrics like that of ‘Big Brave Bill’: “It was UHT milk, she broke down and cried.”

Indeed, this last track deserves a special mention: placed at the end of the album, ‘Big Brave Bill’ finds Rusby narrating the tongue in cheek story of the superhero from the mines that just loved Yorkshire tea. (If you have time, check out the fantastic music video accompanying this track on YouTube.) One can’t help but wonder if this is Rusby playfully signing off her latest release with a jubilant signal of new, exciting work to come.

As always, it is Rusby’s astonishing vocals that are the crowning glory of ‘Life in a Paper Boat’: she manages to engage and hold the listener throughout, even during one potentially over-long six-and-a-half-minute minute track. Despite the impressive range of emotions she manages to convey in this album, there are ample examples of the slower, more sensitive songs for which Rusby is most famous. Even within the upbeat, quick rhythms of ‘Only Desire What You Have’, her voice gives the song a sensuous, smooth quality that manages to lift the track above the rushing instrumentation.

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The diverse and sometimes experimental instrumentation on this album really complements Rusby’s breathy, distinctive tones: indeed, Rusby herself has mentioned “the union between old songs and modern musical technology.” As well as working with Rusby’s traditional band members, the group is joined by Dan Tyminski singing with her on two tracks, whilst the skilled banjo player Ron Block’s musical offerings light up many of the tunes. Each song has a distinctive, beautifully formed opening, with the first track ‘Benjamin Bowmaneer’ emerging from a single chime and a gorgeously rich guitar line.

This whole album is a stunning addition to Rusby’s repertoire. Both new and bold, is shows that she is still able to surprise and push the boundaries of her vocal style, whilst also allowing her distinctive voice to shine through- a difficult balance in folk music.