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Kate Rusby Kate Rusby
Album: Holly Head
Label: Pure
Tracks: 12

Virtually every folk artist has, during the course of their career, released a Christmas - or at any rate wintry-seasonal - album. And the enormous amount of suitable material from which to choose is reflected in the large number of artists who've released more than one such record - in some cases (Albion Christmas Band, Maddy Prior & The Carnival Band, St. Agnes Fountain), a whole series of them. So it's a pleasure to report that 2019 sees the release of Our Kate's fifth Christmas album, which (typically cannily) coincides with a 14-date national tour.

It goes without saying that Holly Head is instantly recognisable as a Kate Rusby album - those dulcet tones just couldn't belong to anyone else, and much of the repertoire is "defiantly Yorkshire", proclaiming Kate's particular personal propensity for proudly presenting the provincial (now there's alliteration for you!). But it also rings the changes in that the listener may perceive an increasing assurance and imagination in the appealing musical settings that clothe the songs and carols within. Many of the tracks involve the now-trademark burnished brass arrangements of Andrew Duncan, while Kate's current "house band" (Damien O'Kane, Duncan Lyall, Josh Clarke and Nick Cooke) provide the carefully considered textures in support.

The tracklisting naturally includes regional or local versions of familiar carols or seasonal songs, so it will come as no surprise, then, to find within the perennial (and welcomely ubiquitous) favourite While Shepherds Watched (here numbered 6 - so only 100 more to go, then!!), a cheery take on the "Yorkshire" version of Three Ships, and a predictably beautifully contoured rendition of Bleak Midwinter (Holst's setting of Christina Rossetti's words), alongside a fairly chirpy (and unmelodramatic) account of the tragic Victorian ballad The Mistletoe Bough. First though, this sparkling new CD rings convivially at your doorbell with the clarion call for "people (to) awake" and Salute The (Happy) Morn (what further incentive do we need?); this is a more inclusive variant on Christians Awake. With celebratory brass fanfares ringing in our ears, we move easily on to the "proof in the Xmas pudding" of the much-less-often-heard Christmas Is Merry, a gently lilting folksy reflection on the Yuletide story, which is aptly followed by standout track The Holly King, a brand new Rusby original that glistens with atmospherics in its exploration of the mystical pagan figure (symbol of the dying year that is vanquished by the Oak King) that evolved into the familiar Santa Claus figure. From further afield comes Lu Lay (aka The Coventry Carol) - very nicely done too - while Celestial Hearts is another relative obscurity, an uplifting Yorkshire carol that mirrors the "joy on this happy morn" theme of the CD's opening track. Kate also treats us to a delicate and affectionate account of the heartwarming Bill Meek & John Conolly song I Am Christmas.

I might arguably be introducing a slight note of humbug into my review, though, when mentioning the obligatory brace of child-friendly fun-novelty tracks that on my repeated playthroughs of the album have already proved candidates for the skip button. Risking a charge of "hippocrisy" here perhaps, I could describe the jaunty "tuba smarties"-bedecked Hippo For Christmas as old-fashioned, for it's a gleefully daft-and-dotty ditty detailing the ultimate in childishly impractical presents (written, it transpires, by a certain John Rox in 1950 as a fund-raiser for Oklahoma City Zoo and three years later becoming a hit for 10-year old child star Gayla Peevey). The CD ends on something of a "this one will run and run" note with BBBB, the latest instalment in the Big Brave Bill saga. Those two tracks aside, though, I can see much truth in the press release's claim that "it's the Christmas album you'll still be compelled to play, guilt-free, at significant volume, in mid-May".

So if your seasonal mission this year is "stocking up" (punning allusion intended!) with positive Christmas cheer, benevolence and charming music-making, then this album, with its pleasingly cosy and harmonious peace-on-earth ambience, will do the trick. You may even be tempted to tag it (w-)holly delightful!

David Kidman