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OffaRex: The Queen of Hearts
by George Graham
(Nonesuch Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/9/2017)
The English folk scene of the late 1960s and 1970s was quite popular in the UK but was always considered a kind of cult item here in the US. Nevertheless, it has left a lasting impression on music, in terms of the influence on others by some of its key figures and groups including Richard Thompson, the late Nick Drake, Sandy Denny and John Martyn. Their contributions have inspired a lot of diverse music over the years, on both sides of the Atlantic. A number of the performers are still active, including notably Richard Thompson. Periodically some new groups and artists will turn up who take up the style, including Snowgoose, the Staves, the duo of Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, Kate Rusby, and, on this side of the Atlantic, Ryley Walker and Anais Mitchell.
This week we have an interesting transatlantic hybrid group whose focus is reviving the classic English folk and folk-rock made famous by Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and others from the 1960s and early 1970s. They call themselves Offa Rex, and their debut album is titled The Queen of Hearts.
Offa Rex is actually a side project by the members of the popular Oregon band The Decemberists and English folk singer Olivia Chaney. The Decemberists have released seven albums since 2002 and have incorporated some ancient-sounding tales into their lyrics. Lead vocalist and principal songwriter Colin Maloy had long been a fan of the English folk scene from its golden era. He came across the debut solo album by Olivia Chaney The Longest River, released in 2015, after she appeared on several records with others. Recently on this review series, we heard Ms. Chaney as one of the four vocalists on Kronos Quartet’s fascinating album Folk Songs. Meloy reached out to Ms. Chaney on social media and that led to sharing stages with Ms. Chaney being the opening act for the Decemberists.
Eventually, Meloy convinced Ms. Chaney to work with his group on a collaborative side-project album and the result is The Queen of Hearts. Ms. Chaney traveled to Oregon to record with the band and eclectic producer Tucker Martine. They spent time selecting songs they had heard from Fairport Convention, The Watersons, Steeleye Span, Martin Carthy, and Ewan MacColl, of mostly traditional material, and worked to provide their own interpretations. The result is a first-rate album that definitely draws upon the sound of the English folk scene, including a number of songs that will be familiar to fans of the genre.
Now in her mid 30s, Ms. Chaney has impressive musical and academic credentials, and is a fine vocalist in the English folk tradition, with an alto range like that of Sandy Denny and Paddy Prior, but she does not try to imitate them. Her singing is a little less ornamented than Denny and Prior could be, but still has the timeless quality that can evoke misty castles. Colin Maloy also does some respectable vocals.
Like Fairport Convention or Steeleye Span, Offa Rex can be very acoustic and traditional sounding, and also go electric at times. Ms. Chaney occasionally plays an electric harpsichord which has a sound straight out of the psychedelic era, and there is not much on the album that borrows from styles past about 1972. Still, with the passage of time and numerous retro movements, I think the album has a real resonance today.
Opening is the title piece The Queen of Hearts a song that was recorded by another of the influential English folk figures, Martin Carthy in 1965, as well as by Joan Baez. Ms. Chaney’s harpsichord and the baroque-ish sound of the arrangement conjures the late 1960s. <<>>
Colin Maloy sings the traditional Blackleg Miner, a song about labor unions in the coal mines, with black-leg miners being the scabs brought in to break the union miner’s strike. Offa Rex gets a little electric on the tune, in the style of Steeleye Span. <<>>
One of the very attractive ballads on the album is The Gardener which Ms. Chaney says was influenced by the version of the song recorded by Steeleye Span’s Maddy Prior and Tim Hart in 1969. Ms. Chaney proves she has what it takes to make an evocative performance of these old traditional songs. <<>>
Another remarkable performance comes on Ms. Chaney’s solo version of Ewan MacColl’s classic song The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, which was originally recorded by MacColl’s wife Peggy Seeger, and then made into a soulful pop hit by Roberta Flack. Ms. Chaney accompanies herself on the harmonium. <<>>
One of the more interesting songs on the album for its background is The Old Churchyard which Ms. Chaney said was inspired by a recording by 1960 English folksinger Norma Waterson, who in turn adapted it from an old American Southern Gospel song. Offa Rex gets occasionally electric with it. <<>>
One of my favorite songs that Offa Rex recorded is Willie O’Winsbury a set of lyrics from the Child Ballads collection. The Pentangle recorded it memorably. Offa Rex do an equally fine version. Ms. Chaney write in the CD booklet that she spent a fair amount time trying to take a distinctive musical approach. The groups succeeds with an interesting six beat pattern and an distinctive guitar figure. Ms. Chaney writes that she, Maloy and bassist Nate Query recorded it live, gathered around a single microphone, later adding some doubled guitar parts. It’s stunning. <<>>
Taking a diametrically opposite approach is Sheepcrook and Black Dog, a Steeleye Span song, which the band does in full electric mode. Meloy and Ms. Chaney in the CD booklet draw a parallel between some of the metal of Black Sabbath and the English folk scene. <<>>
The album ends with To Make You Stay, another piece that evokes the psychedelic era, with the modal, drone-like sound that was often used by the Jefferson Airplane in their early days. The song was written by Lal Waterson of the English folk family act The Watersons. <<>>
The Queen of Hearts, the new album by Offa Rex, a side project by the members of the American band the Decemberists and British folk singer Olivia Chaney is an excellent record for those who are fans of the classic English folk scene. Both Colin Maloy and his band, and Ms. Chaney are great fans of the style and have absorbed it enough to perform it very well, nicely evoking the era from which the genre took root and thrived. But they add enough of their own originally, especially from their being a transatlantic group, that they bring something new to the table.
Our grade for sound quality is an A-minus. The sound is reasonably clean. They recorded in a studio using vintage analog gear, so things might not be as clean or have the sonic clarity that modern technology could provide. Also the dynamic range was squashed out to make the artificially louder through volume compression.
Those of us who are long time fans of the golden age of the English folk scene will find much to like on this new album by Offa Rex. And perhaps it might bring the style to the attention of the millennial fans of the Decemberists, which I think would be a good thing. Whether or not you are into the history of the music, it makes for great listening.
(c) Copyright 2017 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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