Steve Wilson. On music.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Countdown Continues with No. 4, June Tabor and the Oysterband

Continuing today, and culminating with REVERBERATIONS number one album of the year, we’ll be counting down the top twenty-five records of 2011. I’m referring to this countdown as Twenty-five Faves because I have no pretenses about telling you what’s “best.” Sure, I think my taste is better than yours. But nobody died and made me Lester Bangs. And Lester could be arrogant, but I kind of think he would come down on the favorite side of the fave/best dichotomy. His criticism was nothing if not personal. 

I've reviewed the majority of these selections. In the event that I have I'll simply recycle the original reviews, sometimes with a little new commentary. If it's a selection I haven't reviewed previously, I will dash off a new, brief, introductory review just for perspective.

25. Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring for my Halo (Matador)
24. Fountains of Wayne - Sky Full of Holes (Yep Roc)
23. Bass Drum of Death - GB City (Fat Possum)
22. Coathangers - Larceny and Old Lace (Suicide Squeeze)
21. Meg Baird - Seasons on Earth (Drag City)

  9. Jack Oblivian - Rat City (Big Legal Mess/Fat Possum)
  8. Eleanor Friedberger - Last Summer (Merge)
  7. New York Dolls - Dancing Backwards in High Heels (429 Records)
  6. Raphael Saadiq - Stone Rollin' (Columbia)
  5. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake (Vagrant)

And here's a brand new review of Ragged Kingdom by June Tabor and the Oysterband (Topic Records):

Ragged Kingdom, the brilliant new album by June Tabor and the Oysterband, follows on the heels of their excellent Freedom and Rain - none too closely on the heels, of course - Freedom and Rain was released twenty years ago in 1991. Freedom and Rain was a revelation. In keeping with the Briitish folk-rock tradition of combining traditional English and Celtic material with newer songs - a paradigm pursued variously by Fairport Convention, Pentangle and Steeleye Span (or the Byrds, for that matter) – Tabor and the Oysterband’s versions (one hesitates to call them ‘covers’) of songs by Billy Bragg, Richard Thompson, and the Pogues were extraordinary. Their take on the Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties,”  a real reach outside of the conventional folk-rock genre, and far from de rigeuer, was all the more compelling for being as unexpected as it was terrific.

Tabor’s more traditional folk recordings, before and since Freedom and Rain, are consistently fine, sometimes remarkable. Also released in 2011, Ashore (a collection of traditional, maritime themed songs) was widely and justifiably celebrated. Still, many fans hungered for a follow up to Freedom; the extraordinary musicianship (acoustic and electric instrumentation) of the Oysterband brings out something especially powerful in Tabor’s singing.

Fans of traditional songs already know that the themes of folk material are full of enough war, rape and mayhem to make gangsta rap sound like Katy Perry. The singer’s first job with such canonical material is to communicate the lyric, using every bit of diction, phrasing and character at their disposal – musicality, while essential is a hand maid to the tales.Tabor’s alto is expressive, but austere – thrilling, but steely in its control. Tabor’s singing always serves the song, if it calls attention to itself, free as it is of melisma or silly ornamentations, it does so to sell the lyric and the message of the song. Frankly, her approach (learned from other great singers, from Annie Briggs to Maddy Prior) present the listener with a master class. 

The Oysterband’s supple musicianship is on display from the first note of the folk warhorse “Bonnie Bunch of Roses,” creating a maelstrom of controlled sound, reminiscent of Fairport Convention’s Richard Thompson and Dave Swarbrick fueled intensity behind Sandy Denny on "Matty Groves” from their seminal Liege and Lief album. And for all the intensity of their backing, their playing remains absolutely in support of Tabor’s grim narrative. The theme of “Bonnie Bunch of Roses,” the unfathomable, inevitable horrors of war, is complemented by Ragged Kingdom’s second track, a pulsing version of PJ Harvey’s “That Was My Veil,” itself a jagged portrayal of romantic betrayal and deception.

The watershed moment on this beautifully wrought collection is a heartbreaking take on Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Where Joy Division’s performance, for all its dark glory, sometimes sounded like the doomed Ian Curtis crying out against an instrumental track, Tabor and the Oysterband’s version seduces every drop of dull ache out of the lyric’s desperate denial. In a gorgeous, but stark duet, Tabor and the band’s John Jones simply break our hearts.

Tabor and Jones also duet to good effect on the traditional “Son David,” with its timeless mother/son conversation and on the album’s closing track, “Dark End of the Street.” The latter, a classic soul ballad of the American south, and the quintessential statement of shamed love, was written by Dan Penn and Chips Moman; it’s been covered plenty, but rarely as beautifully as it is here. Of course the themes of doomed love and ill fate are the pure, dark stuff of British folk song.

There are beautiful, definitive versions of traditional stalwarts like “If My Love Leaves Me” and the American Civil War ballad “The Hills of Shiloh,” and a rocking, fiddle driven workout on Bob Dylan’s “Seven Curses.” A traditionally themed tale involving a fair maiden who gives herself to a corrupt judge to save her father from the hangman, only to be both violated and deceived, “Seven Curses” is Dylan as student of the traditional mystic.Yup, Dylan knows and loves the power and mystery of the world, as beautiful as it is tragic, portrayed in the language of folk song.

Folk music can be an extraordinarily dull, milquetoast affair in the wrong hands. It can be art of undeniable, timeless power in the hands of real artists. June Tabor and the Oysterband are real artists, and together they bring nothing but the best out in each other. Ragged Kingdom yields endless entertainment, musicality, and poetry. And unlike some of the records celebrated in the immediacy of a trend-obsessed world, it always will.

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