These veterans offer as good a folk album as you will get this year.
Label: Topic Records
Time: 12 tracks / 46 mins
Any album that starts off sounding like the Decemberists has got my attention, but then June Tabor had that many years ago. Her voice is one of the most smokily dramatic and expressive from over the last few decades. In P. J. Harvey’s “That was my Veil” she sounds more like Grace Slick, but above all else she is simply June Tabor, folk legend.
What has sometime been a problem with her records, including her best-of, is that its timbre can grow dull over the course of a whole collection, and that is often as much to do with the selection of songs as anything.
This superb collection has no such problems. Oysterband is a perfect foil to that husky voice, its clear mandolins and sparsely plucked strings balancing her lower notes (“That Was my Veil”) and their sprightly drive adding a pace that lifts the whole set (particularly the gorgeous “If My Love Loves Me”). And with their own vocals, they add more possibilities, such as duets and a performance of “(When I Was No But) Sweet Sixteen” that is so engaging that it took me several listens to realise that its harmonies are entirely à capella.
The song choice is exquisite. Of course, as a folk project, there are going to be deceitful ploughboys leaving young girls with babes in arms, murders, and even a bit of history (a song about Napoleon Bonaparte, anyone?). But who would expect a cover of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” in the middle of that lot? Stripped of its beats and slowed down to a duet with just sparse acoustic guitar and warming cello, the song is more than re-invented; it has enough gravitas in this company to sound like the new original version.
On top of that we have a ripping version of “Fountains Flowing” (the same tune as “He Who Would Valiant Be”). Like “If My Love Loves Me,” it has a perfect melody.
There is one oddity. Perhaps the best track for displaying Oyster Band’s rocking tendencies is “Judas.” Ostensibly a Christian song, it has no regard for political correctness and spits a venom that would make Jesus wince, especially when topping off the verses unnecessarily with, “Judas was a red-headed man” as if that would even justify putting a red hot poker up his nose while pulling his eyes out.
That aside, there is virtually nothing to complain about. The two elements fit like hand in glove. On a couple of tracks, John Jones’ vocals rise and Tabor’s lower so that they are in complete unison.
It took 21 years for these parties to record together after the celebrated “Freedom and Rain.” With this superb release – already nominated in several places for folk awards - a lot of people are going to wonder why it took them so long.