Song of the Day, June 27: If My Love Loves Me by June Tabor and Oysterband

TabOysterLoveLoveToday’s song is an old tune that puts a surprising twist on a traditional theme. When June Tabor and Oysterband reunited for their second shared outing, Ragged Kingdom, they wanted to explore the “mystery, magic, and mayhem” in traditional and modern folk. One of the standouts in their selections is If My Love Loves Me.

It’s a very old song (Roud 30), also known as Willie’s Lyke-Wake. Considered extinct in Britain, it remained a popular folk song in Scandinavia, returning to Scotland in fragmentary form in the early 20th Century. It tells the tale of an insecure lover and a plot to find out if love is true. Unusually, the schemer is the man, who fakes his own death to see if the woman he loves cares enough to come to his wake. When she kisses the “corpse” he springs up and declares his undying love. Macabre indeed, but compellingly constructed.

Tabor turns in an elegant vocal, and the Oysters propel the song with charming urgency. The result easily lives up to their mission statement, a standout in both musical catalogs.

Enjoy this delightful song today.

Song of the Day, September 8: Palace of Memory by Oysterband

OysterPalaceToday’s song is another fine track from Oysterband’s stellar 2014 album Diamonds On the Water. With a refreshed energy, the band presented a dozen wonderful songs filled with natural images and human heart. Palace of Memory is a standout, a bracing song of determination and independence in the face of time’s travails.

Beneath the green grass the stone
Beneath the pretty flesh the bone
In the palace of memory
You lie, you lie alone

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, May 28: Heaven to Calcutta by Oysterband

OysterRideCalcuttaAfter a decade of recording together, the talented musicians of Oysterband had stabilized their line-up and settled on a final form of their name. They released the charming album Ride in 1989, including the cautionary tale Heaven to Calcutta. Presented as a conversation between the narrator and the Prince of Beggars, the song details the temptations the Prince has to offer. Given that the singer has fallen from Heaven to Calcutta, those offerings are pretty tempting. With a quietly moving rhythm section and a charming accordion feature, this track is a fun highlight of the Oysters’ long career.

Enjoy this musical fable today.

My Favorite Albums of 2014

Last year was a good one for music, producing more truly enjoyable albums than I’ve heard in a while. Here are the seven discs that rose above the pack for me — a nice mix of veterans, newcomers, and acts settled into a solid groove.

OysterDiamondThe champ of the year was Oysterband with their stunning Diamonds On the Water. Together in various forms for over 35 years, the Oysters released their 25th album early in the year. I was delighted to hear its energy and power. Maybe reuniting with June Tabor a couple of years ago gave them a shot in the arm; it certainly gave her some great new energy too. Whatever the case, this is the band’s finest work in 20 years. Smart lyrics, tight playing, social commentary, and music with real heart all combine over 12 tracks without anything close to a dull moment. Highlights include the moving Steal Away, the anthemic Spirit of Dust and the haunting Palace of Memory.


The other six offer very different musical approaches, each with its own distinctive charm.

ColeStandardsLloyd Cole – Standards: Another long-time favorite resurfaces with his best album in many years. Cole has turned out a steady stream of quality albums; his more recent offerings have been more acoustic, folky discs. For this ironically titled disc (all but one song are originals), he plugs back in, reuniting with collaborators Fred Maher, Matthew Sweet, and Blair Cowan. The result is a fresh, inspired set that finds the acerbic sage at his witty finest. Highlights include the John Hartford / Mama Cass cover California Earthquake, Myrtle and Rose and Opposites Day.

GEzraVoyageGeorge Ezra – Wanted On Voyage: A fresh new talent from England, George Ezra Bennett moved to Bristol, dropped his surname, and launched a promising career. He landed on the BBC Introducing stage at Glastonbury and parlayed that success into a record deal. After two promising EPs, he assembled a team that helped him pursue his musical vision. Gifted with an almost surreally deep voice, he knows how to use it to great effect, exploring his range while presenting a nice set of pop songs. Highlights include the frustration ode Cassy O’, the gospel-tinged Did You Hear the Rain? and the clever pop gem Blame It On Me.

IngridLightsIngrid Michaelson – Lights Out: Michaelson has been turning out charming, often quirky folk-pop for a decade, working hard to maintain her independence while receiving signficant airplay through TV and other venues. Her sixth album sees her take a quantum leap, with stronger lyrics, more varied soundscapes, and more confident vocals. She invited a number of friends to the party, and the half-dozen co-credits enhance rather than distract. Kicking off the release with the brilliant Robert Palmer inspired video for her best song ever, Girls Chase Boys, Michaelson has emerged as a unique, mature artist. Other highlights are the wistful Stick and the boisterous regret anthem Time Machine.

PerfumeGeniusTooBrightPerfume Genius – Too Bright: Mike Hadreas’ first album was the quietly promising Learning, followed by the stunning Put Your Back N 2 It. For his third release as Perfume Genius, he really diversifies the sound. The result is much more uneven than the previous discs, and that inconsistency almost kept Too Bright off my list. When it’s on, however, it’s a powerhouse, and he deserves praise for stepping out of his comfort zone and experimenting with his sound. It’s also much less introspective, a nice evolution in writing and perspective. Highlights include the bold, angry anthem Queen; the eerie worldbeat tale Longpig; and the stirring, jarring Grid.

RailsWarningThe Rails – Fair Warning: Kami Thompson and James Walbourne have two impressive but very different resumes. She’s the daughter of folk rock legends Richard and Linda Thompson who has eased into her own impressive career. He’s a talented guitarist and songwriter who has been a member of Son Volt and the Pernice Brothers. Each performer released a fine solo album before they began collaborating. They got married and started a band, and their debut joint effort is stunning, a powerful mix of folk-pop, traditional songs, and grim rock. Highlights include the gripping Panic Attack Blues, an enchanting version of the traditional William Taylor, and the quietly urgent Breakneck Speed.

ThompsonFamilyThompson – Family: Thompson and Walbourne had a busy year, also participating in this aptly named project. Curated by Kami’s brother, Teddy, the album features contributions from all three talented performers as well as parents Richard and Linda (sharing their first full album credit in over 30 years), brother Jack, and nephew Zak Hobbs, plus James’ brother Rob on percussion and occasional moments from other family members. The result is a delightful assortment that is remarkably cohesive. Highlights include Teddy’s rave-up Right, Linda’s fragile Perhaps We Can Sleep, Kami and James’ Careful (which sounds like a brilliant Rails outtake with extra energy from the family), and Richard’s rousing protest number That’s Enough which features a nice singalong chorus from the extended family.

Song of the Day, November 26: All That Way For This by Oysterband

OysterAllThatToday’s song is All That Way For This, the anthemic opening to Oysterband’s brilliant 1992 album Deserters. It sets the stage perfectly for the disc’s explorations of inequity and determination to improve the world. Singer John Jones belts out a series of reasonable wishes for a satisfying life, dashing them against the reality of harsh economics, uncaring leaders, and broken chances. The band swirl behind him with great power, a tight unit that makes just the right space for each player to shine.

All we wanted was something worth it
Worth the labor, worth the wait
Then they take you up to the mountain
You see too late

In the middle of a good time
Truth gave me her icy kiss
Look around, you must be joking
All that way, all that for this

The song remains a vibrant part of the band’s live shows. Enjoy this great live take from 2012 of a powerful song today.

Song of the Day, August 27: Another Quiet Night In England by the Oyster Band

Today’s song isOysterStepQuiet the Oyster Band’s Another Quiet Night In England from their powerful album Step Outside. Opening with a bit of dissonant string work, it quickly drives forward on a tasty guitar figure. Lead vocalist John Jones snaps out his lines about industrial decay in Thatcher’s England and the other Oysters provide perfect harmonies on the repeated title lines. It’s one of the band’s most tightly constructed songs and showcases their musical skills and political conscience all in one neat package.

Just another quiet night in England
His father used to own the factory
Another quiet night in England
But the son cashed in and he sold the site
And a town fell silent overnight
And another quiet night goes by

Enjoy this powerful song today.

Song of the Day, June 9: Steal Away by Oysterband

OysterbandDiamondStealToday’s song is Steal Away from Oysterband’s latest release, Diamonds On the Water. Re-energized by their recent collaboration with June Tabor, the Oysters turned out one of the finest discs of their long, illustrious career. More mature and reflective, its power is quiet and stirring more often than energetic. This works amazingly well as the band turn out a dozen strong tracks in a diverse but cohesive flow.

The standout is the penultimate track. Steal Away is a beautiful meditation on the redemptive power of darkness and solitude. Assuring us that there is no need to fear the dark, singer John Jones turns in one of his warmest vocals. The band are tighter than ever, building slowly through the verses and supporting Jones’ growing determination. It’s perfectly constructed and moving from start to finish.

Enjoy this amazing song today.

Song of the Day, March 5: Don’t Slit Your Wrists For Me by Oysterband

OysterShoutingWristsToday’s song is Don’t Slit Your Wrists For Me by Oysterband. It appears on The Shouting End of Life, one of their strongest offerings. Blending their traditional Celtic roots with their political inclinations and stirring it all up with a dose of solid post-punk rock, the Oysters turn out a stunning set of potent anthems. This track, featuring delightful duet vocals from Linda Duggan, is more about personal politics. Set as a debate about the merits of sex for pleasure or for procreation, it stakes out territory where either partner can declare their independence on either front. Duggan and lead vocalist John L. Jones trade barbs and insights with growing intensity, clearly enjoying the energy of the song. The result is infectious fun with a nice dose of insight, Oysterband at its finest.  Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, December 6: That Was My Veil by June Tabor and Oysterband

TabOysterVeilToday’s song is That Was My Veil. June Tabor and Oysterband recorded the song on their stunning second collaboration, 2011’s Ragged Kingdom. The album was inspired by “the mystery, magic, and mayhem in traditional song” but includes a number of modern songs that also “tell strange stories.”

That Was My Veil was written by PJ Harvey and John Parish for Harvey’s fourth album, Dance Hall at Louse Point. Although best known as a post-punk, pre-Riot musical feminist, Harvey’s music often shows off her understanding of traditional music and the power of stories and myths. This song is a dark, mysterious tale of betrayal, sorrow, and anger. Tabor’s vocals are perfectly suited as she takes on the persona of the woman betrayed. Oysterband are in stunning form providing a stirring musical backdrop.

It starts at daylight
I see him
Before my sad eyes
I hear him breathing
Oh lover, need you to lead me
No never thought that you’d leave

That was my veil
That was my time
Once held secret
But now lies

The studio version of the song is potent indeed. This live version shows off the amazing power of this musical collaboration. Enjoy them both today.

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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