There are two big questions here: how old does a song have to be to be classed as a folk song? And how should you approach a cover – be faithful to the original or make it your own?
Label: Pure Records.
Rusby reckons that she has answered the first, almost by accident. She has twice been on Jo Whiley’s BBC radio show, where she has to perform a cover alongside her new material. She had already played the Oasis track “Don’t Go Away” on a session five years ago, when she realised that “not just the very old songs are handed down through the generations, but also favourite songs of any age, of any generation” and so they are all up for re-interpretation. Subsequently, she covered the Cure’s “Friday, I’m in Love” and the popularity of these songs made her determined to release a covers album, where the folk spirit of re-interpreting songs could come to the fore with more contemporary material.
Once you have decided to re-interpret a song, the question becomes, “How?” It’s not even easy for a musician to re-structure their own song, let alone someone else’s. When Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett released Genesis Revisited, which included new approaches to his own songs, it received a very mixed reaction, whereas all his many subsequent true-to-the-originals have been given ecstatic adulation.
The consensus must lie with the make-it-fresh approach, though. There is little point in re-creating what already exists, when the original is, well, the original. Why re-paint the Mona Lisa as the da Vinci version, when Leo made such a good job of it in the first place?
This is where Rusby comes into her own. Maybe due to the unhurried pace of life in lockdown, or maybe just her style, she has slowed some of these songs right down. So lead single “Manic Monday” doesn’t sound manic at all. The pace would suit a Lazy Sunday Afternoon. Do I care? Not a bit. Her dreamy voice, quite possibly the silkiest in Yorkshire, carries it all the way. She also adds an instrumental break that sets it apart from the original, featuring husband Damien O’Kane’s guitar, paired with Duncan Lyall’s magnificent bass Moog.
(I’m not a fan of musicians involving their kids on musical projects as it normally distracts from the music, and everyone involved probably finds it embarrassing a few years later. However, catch this video and enjoy their kids’ backing vocals. You’d have to be cold as Pluto to not find it utterly charming. O’Kane is dressed for the part too…).
Similarly, the Cure’s insistent jangly guitar on “Friday, I’m in Love” takes a more ambient, shoegaze approach. The Kinks’ “Days” is completely unlike both the original and Kirsty MacColl’s signature version for the next generation. O’Kane and Lyall have created a semi-funky chassis for it to ride on that takes a bit of getting used to, but it works.
(In case you’re wondering, this is not a days-of-the-week concept album; there’s no more of this from here on in.)
A covers album reveals the artist as fan. Perhaps this one also splits Rusby the pop fan from Rusby the folk singer. This slowing down is fine for creating a mood, but the danger is that when the song isn’t strong enough, the album tends towards mid-tempo sameyness. “Carolina on my Mind,” Coldplays’s “Everglow” and Lyle Lovett’s “If I Had a Boat” are the prime victims. Rusby the folk singer seems drawn to songs that sound weak next to the poppier tracks.
I also have to take issue with her, when she comments about the album, “We have laughed and we have cried, we have danced and we have sung. All of that is here, ingrained in every track.” Those emotions do not necessarily reach the listener’s end of the recording, as her voice is not that expressive. Like Cara Dillon and her similarly gorgeous voice, whether she would sing about being slowly and painfully dismembered or being caressed to ecstasy, I suspect there might be very little difference in her tone.
The good news is that there is plenty of quality poppier material here. As well as those mentioned earlier, she sings Nicky Thomas’s “Love of the Common People” over a chunky rhythm, Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” and Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colours.”
One oddity of this set is the way that she has taken two rare theme tunes and made proper songs of them. So – again, slowing it right down – she takes the essential 90-odd seconds of “The Littlest Hobo” theme and makes it last three times longer. “Connie” is the other one.
The absolute highlight, and a true must-listen, is Taylor Swift’s addictive “Shake it Off,” lit up by lashings of rhythmic banjo and underpinned again by that Moog bass. It’s one of the songs of the year for me, its pleasure lingering in the brain long after the album has finished. Does it beat the original? You bet.
So while one or two of the songs could have been replaced by something a little livelier, this is a truly individual set of covers that complements the originals beautifully.