Offa Rex — The Queen of Hearts
(Nonesuch 558638-2, 2017, CD)
by Jon Davis, Published 2017-12-05
It was sometime back in the mid 70s that I discovered English folk rock, though the specifics are lost to the mists of time. It was likely a Steeleye Span album that did it, and I’m pretty sure Rocket Cottage was my first. Before long I encountered the marvel that is Fairport Convention’s Liege and Lief, and in the years since I’ve investigated not only the rest of the catalogs of those two bands, but the similar and related bands that also did great work blending the rich folk traditions of the British Isles with rock instruments and energy: Horslips, Pentangle, Fotheringay, Mellow Candle, Trees, Five Hand Reel, Lindisfarne, Mr Fox, and many more. Now comes Offa Rex, which features English singer Olivia Chaney and what is basically the American band The Decemberists. The connection with the roots I’ve mentioned is clear — they take on several traditional tunes that Steeleye Span (or Maddy Prior outside Steeleye) played, like “Sheepcrook and Black Dog,” “Blackleg Miner,” and “Flash Company.” And they acknowledge more modern sources by covering Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” reminding us that it was a folk-oriented song before Roberta Flack made it famous. Over the course of the album (and called out by name in the liner notes) are the great ladies of English folk singing: Maddy Prior, June Tabor, Anne Briggs, Lal Waterson, and Sandy Denny. Also name-checked are Ashley Hutchings, Martin Carthy, and Tim Hart. So these people obviously know exactly what they’re doing, and where it fits in history. Given the indie-cred (such as it is) that Colin Meloy and The Decemberists command, perhaps this shining of light on great music of the past will open a few eyes in younger generations. Be that as it may, this stellar band has come up with arrangements that can stand proudly with the work of their inspirations. It’s a kind of All around My Hat for the millennial generation, and is overflowing with musical ideas that both pay homage and expand on the accomplishments of their forebears. The title track leads off the set, starting with Chaney playing electric harpsichord, soon joined by bass, drums, and guitar with wah-wah. And then her lovely voice comes in, and if your heart isn’t melted yet, I question your humanity. (Just kidding — I think — but it is seriously beautiful.) Meloy takes lead vocals on some of the tracks, and the rest of the band is stellar. Chris Funk (guitar), Nate Query (bass), John Moen (drums), and Jenny Conlee (keyboards) are all flexible and provide other instruments beyond their primaries, and guests contribute bass clarinet, cello, viola, and percussion. I’m just stunned and pleased that such wonderful can be released in 2017. Maybe there’s hope for the human race after all.
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