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.