OFFA REX – The Queen Of Hearts (Nonesuch)

Offa Rex The Queen Of HeartsBorn in Florence but raised in Oxford, Olivia Chaney’s 2015 debut album following contributions to assorted collections and albums by Seth Lakeman and Alasdair Roberts earned her extensive praise and many fans. Not least among them being Colin Meloy of Portland indie rock Americana outfit The Decemberists who struck up a Twitter relationship that led to her supporting them on an American tour and, following assorted conversations about traditional English folk, the proposal that they be her answer to the Albion Dance Band.

Thus was born this project in which they reinterpret as collection of familiar (mostly) traditional British songs in a late 60s-early 70s folk rock vein. Rather inevitably, comparisons have been drawn to Steeleye Span and Denny-era Fairport, but another reference would be to another Denny-fronted outfit, Fotheringay.

Produced by Tucker Martine, the album opens with prominent harpsichord on ‘The Queen Of Hearts’, a number dating back to Charles II and variously recorded by Joan Baez, Martin Carthy (from whom they learned it) and Cyril Tawny, but here taking on a sort of courtly psychedelia sound, Chaney’s echoey pure voice soaring over the guitar waves.

Another one from the Roud collection, ‘Blackleg Miner’, a controversial folk ballad in its support of violence against strikebreakers, is perhaps now forever associated with Steeleye Span, and with Meloy taking lead over a mandolin-led backing, this is a similarly muscular drums-driven version. Another Steeleye staple, ‘Sheepcrook And Black Dog’, a song of love gone cold and suicidal despair, gets an almost Zeppelin introduction with heavy guitar and drums in contrast to Chaney’s light soaring vocals before it briefly shifts into a harmonium-backed passage only to plunge back into a psych rock stew of organ, fuzz guitar and electric piano.

It’s in decided contrast to the earlier and far more gentle ‘The Gardener’, a Child ballad sometimes known as ‘Proud Maisrie’ about a haughty woman rebuffing the titular suitor with his promises of floral gowns, etched out here on fiddle and guitars or, indeed, a stunning minimalist interpretation of Ewan MacColl’s meltingly lovely ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ on which Chaney backed by just a yearning drone.

Another much recorded traditional number, most memorably by June Tabor, ‘Flash Company’, a reflective song about the ruination of living the high life, actually puts me in mind of early 10,000 Maniacs and is one of the several highlights here, followed in turn by the ringing guitar arpeggios backing of ‘Old Churchyard’, Chaney’s hymnal reading perhaps harking more to American folk traditions than British. However with its Morris tune, the brief instrumental interlude of ‘Constant Billy/I’ll Go Enlist’, arranged by the band’s accordionist, Jenny Conlee, brings things very much back to the English countryside.

Clocking in at seven and a half minutes, ‘Willie O’Winsbury’ is the song Meloy requested Chaney to record in that first tweet, an 18th century Scottish ballad in which, discovering he’s daughter’s become pregnant in his absence, confronts the man responsible, here Thomas, intending to have him hung, but, won over by his charm and looks, offers him both her, gold and land, the first of which he accepts, but, underlining his honest intentions, not the latter. First recorded in 1968 by Sweeney’s Men and subsequently by the likes of Anne Briggs, John Renbourn and Fairport, the version here given a pastoral arrangement of fluttering acoustic guitar and harmonium with Chaney’s singing a perfect complement.

Only a minute shorter, things hark back to Steeleye electric folk rock with the steady beat and harmonium drizzled ‘Bonny May’, otherwise known as ‘The Broom of Cowdenknowes’, here adopting the version recorded by June Tabor that essentially about the rape of a shepherdess by a passing aristocrat and her subsequent pregnancy, though, atypically, it has a happy ending with him returning and taken mother and child off with him.

It closes with a Lal Waterson song, Meloy again on keening lead with Chaney duetting for a resonant ringing acoustic guitar and drums treatment of ‘To Make You Stay’ that, with extended instrumental passages, actually ends things on an early Decemberists note. Whether this is just a one-off remains to be seen, but if nothing else is certainly going to introduce Chaney to a whole bigger audience, which can’t be a bad thing for either of them.

Mike Davies

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Artists’ website: http://www.decemberists.com/news/offa-rex/

‘The Queen Of Hearts’: