Album of the Week, December 2: Ragged Kingdom by June Tabor and Oysterband

June Tabor is one of the pre-eminent voices in British folk and arguably one of the finest singers regardless of material. Elvis Costello famously said of her voice, “If you don’t like listening to June Tabor, you should stop listening to music.” She began recording in 1976 and although most of her albums are credited to her alone, she is a great collaborator. She has shared disc credit with Martin Simpson and Maddy Prior (as Silly Sisters) and perhaps most famously with Oysterband. The Oyster Band, as they were originally known, also began recording in 1976. They released their first full-length collaboration, 1990’s Freedom and Rain. Since then they have shared the stage occasionally but recorded separately, until 2011’s magnificent Ragged Kingdom.

Title Ragged Kingdom
Act June Tabor and Oysterband
Label Topic Release Date 9/19/2011
Producer Al Scott
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Bonny Bunch of Roses
  2. That Was My Veil
  3. Son David
  4. Love Will Tear Us Apart
  5. (When I Was No But) Sweet Sixteen
  6. Judas (Was A Red-Headed Man)
  7. If My Love Loves Me
  8. The Hills of Shiloh
  9. Fountains Flowing
  10. The Leaeves of Life
  11. Seven Curses
  12. The Dark End of the Street

Tabor has always been a brilliant interpreter of diverse kinds of music, often including unexpected covers as well as modern folk tunes mixed in with the traditional fare. The Oysterband collaborations bring this to the fore, including some great classic rock songs (for which Tabor credits legendary BBC DJ John Peel). Her dozen or so albums since Freedom and Rain are all lovely but had become increasingly quiet and contemplative. The Oysters, on the other hand, had begun to stray farther from folk and more into straight ahead rock on their later albums. Coming back together inspired everyone involved to truly rise to the occasion. The liner notes include this observation:

We have long been fascinated by the mystery, magic, and mayhem in traditional song. But the impulse to tell strange stories never goes away; we are indebted to the creators and carriers of all these songs.

The twelve tracks live up to that promise. They kick off with Bonny Bunch of Roses, one of the best songs recorded by any of the performers and winner of the BBC Radio 2 Folk Award for Best Traditional Track of 2011. It’s a rollicking view of the end of the Napoleonic wars and returns Tabor to the rocking delivery she had left behind recently. From this powerful start the songs mostly alternate between traditional and modern, making the journey especially compelling.

The traditional songs are tracks 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, and 10. All are wonderful renditions from a nice variety of folk eras and traditions. The other standout is a classic Scandinavia by way of Scotland (really!) song If My Love Loves Me, a gripping tale of potentially disastrous passion gone surprisingly right. Judas and Son David are also uptempo songs but not of such uplifting material. The Leaves of Life, also known as The Seven Virgins, is a beautiful rendering of ancient Christian mystery.

The covers are even more diverse. Seven Curses is a Bob Dylan track perfectly suited to the album’s themes; The Hills of Shiloh is a heartbreaking song of the U.S. Civil War penned by Shel Silverstein and Jim Friedman. The real stunner of this set is That Was My Veil, a spot-on cover of a PJ Harvey tune, showing her roots and the timeless nature of some musical themes. Another offbeat choice is Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart. Tabor and Oysterband vocalist John Jones make the most of the song as a dark duet; unfortunately it doesn’t quite live up to the harrowing live version that they recorded live at the first Big Session festival a half dozen years earlier.

The album closes with the oft-covered 1967 soul song Dark End of the Street written by Dan Penn and Chips Moman. Despite the many lovely duets that have preceded it (including a stunner by Don Dixon and Marti Jones and a sweet live recording by Richard and Linda Thompson), Tabor and Jones make the song their own. It’s a fittingly quiet wrap-up of the themes of the album, departing on a bittersweet but potentially optimistic note.

Ragged Kingdom owned the folk world in 2011. It won three other Radio 2 awards — best album, best group, and best singer for Tabor — and was voted iRoots album of the year. The satisfying success led Tabor to quip, “Old people do win things sometimes.” Indeed they do, and when this much talent gathers together and lives up to the promise, such wins are no surprise.

FURTHER LISTENING: Other albums by June Tabor and Oysterband separately will show up as future albums of the week. Their two other collaborations are also solid. Freedom and Rain is mostly covers, including great versions of songs by Billy Bragg, Shane MacGowan, and Richard Thompson. The surprise-it-works track on that set is a lovely rendering of the Velvet Underground’s All Tomorrow’s Parties. The Big Session was a gathering of folkish musicians both traditional and modern hosted by Oysterband. Big Session Volume 1 from 2004 is a great showcase for all the talent — including Eliza Carthy, the Handsome Family, Jim Moray, Show of Hands, and June Tabor — separately and in various combinations (usually with the Oysterband providing stellar musical backing).

PS – Just for fun, here’s a promo with June Tabor and John Jones discussing the making of the album.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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