Album of the Week, September 22: Deserters by Oysterband

OysterDesertOysterband went through numerous name and lineup changes on their way to becoming one of the most important folk-rock bands of the past 30 years. Formed as the Oyster Ceilidh Band, they were primarily a dance band focusing on traditional acoustic music. An offshoot, Fiddler’s Dram, had a 1980 hit in the UK with the #3 Daytrip to Bangor. Not long after, Fiddler’s Dram were no more and the Oyster Band had dropped its middle name. WIth the core membership of John Jones (lead vocals and melodeon), Alan Prosser (guitars, viola, vocals) and Ian Telfer (fiddle, English concertina, vocals), they mixed more originals with the traditional songs. Eventually settling as a five-piece and compressing the name to simply Oysterband (oysters being famous in Whitstable, where they spent their formative years), they released their powerful masterpiece, Deserters, in 1992.

Title Deserters
Act Oysterband
Label Ryko Release Date 1992
Producer John Ravenhall
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. All That Way For This
  2. The Deserter
  3. Angels Of the River
  4. We Could Leave Right Now
  5. Elena’s Shoes
  6. Granite Years
  7. Diamond For A Dime
  8. Never Left
  9. Ship Sets Sail
  10. Fiddle Or A Gun
  11. Bells of Rhymney

The album features ten original tracks written by various configurations of band members and one brilliantly chosen cover. Jones has never been in finer voice, nailing the ballads and anthems with equal fervor and nuance. The band are in equally fine form, demonstrating what a tight, powerful unit they have become over the years. With a freshness that belies that experience, the quintet offer an amazing look at the personal and political.

Things kick off with the potent All That Way For This, a lament of the plight of the working class. Despite all the efforts of unions and the struggles of the workers, capitalist England has left its people with industrial wreckage, job shortages, and uncertainty. It’s a fiery welcome to a great journey. The Deserter is a testament to the power of saying “no” to unjust laws and the need for personal accountability to change the world. Angels of the River shows the price that must be paid for such integrity in chilling terms. This trio of songs works cohesively to convey a powerful message of difficult responsibility.

We Could Leave Right Now offers another solution, departure. Capturing the title theme, it ponders escape from the darkness and starting afresh. This too will be difficult, but with another by your side, perhaps it is a viable option. It’s a great song, one of the Oysters’ finest. Elena’s Shoes looks at the remnants of a toppled regime, noting the excesses of those in power as the people starve. Riffing on the infamous footwear collections of Elena Ceaușescu and Imelda Marcos, the band use a ludicrous image to make a powerful point. Granite Years is a jaunty tune of determination that serves as a nice centerpiece for the disc.  Diamond For A Dime reflects on real and perceived value, asking which is more important.

The theme of departure returns with Never Left, as we look at the Garden of Eden. “We never left the garden” is the message — we must rebuild what we want where we are. More journeying features in the stirring Ship Sets Sail, a metaphor for loss and a celebration of togetherness as a brace against the ills of the world. With a nod to Joni Mitchell, Fiddle Or A Gun ponders two ways to influence the world. Unlike Mitchell’s doomed protagonist, however, the Oysters opt for the fiddle in the end. Deserters shows us how powerful a choice that is.

The final track is the one cover, a brilliantly chosen folk standard, Bells of Rhymney. Written by poet Ian Davies — using the structure of the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons — and set to music by Pete Seeger, it’s a powerful workers’ song that has been recorded by dozens of artists from the Byrds to Cher. Oysterband make it their own, using their folk-rock roar to rip through an angry and determined version that caps of Deserters perfectly.

FURTHER LISTENING: With nearly two dozen albums in their various guises, Oysterband have a rich catalogue. Each offering has at least a few real gems. Pearls From the Oysters is a nice overview of their late-80s output; the best album from that period is the lovely Step Outside. They’ve recorded two albums with stunning vocalist June Tabor; the most recent, Ragged Kingdom, shows that neither act’s power has been dimmed by the passing of the years.

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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.

2 Responses to Album of the Week, September 22: Deserters by Oysterband

  1. Tom says:

    Why they weren’t as big as the Levellers during the early to mid-90s I’ll never know – maybe they just didn’t have the one singalong anthem that would have properly lifted them out of the folk bunker. But their trio of albums in that period – this, Holy Bandits and The Shouting End of Life – are a hot streak that any band would be proud of.

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