Release Date: Jul 14, 2017
Record label: Nonesuch
It's been a good few years for pan-Atlantic folk collaborations. In 2015, the Mekons and Robbie Fulks went to Jura to record an album of sea shanties, and last year Billie Bragg and Joe Henry made Shine a Light on board trains from Chicago to Los Angeles. And now, Portland indie rockers the Decemberists -- who have always sounded like Anglophiles and have cited Anne Briggs, Nic Jones and Shirley Collins as influences -- have teamed up with a British songwriter to make a record indebted to the '60s British folk revival.
If Colin Meloy were some mad scientist at work on a time machine, it’s likely that he would set its dials to travel about a continuum spanning the 17th through 19th centuries when the songs collected by famed folklorist James Francis Childe were being sung amidst the hills and dales of England. With Offa Rex and The Queen of Hearts, Meloy, the mad musical alchemist, has indeed built something of a time machine, dialing into a wormhole that connects the drab, gray 18th century origins of many of the Childe Ballads with the paisley-drenched colours of late 1960s England and its psychedelic-inflected folk revival. To create Offa Rex, Meloy enlisted the talent of sublime English vocalist Olivia Chaney.
A s band-building chat-up lines go, "We'll be your Albion Dance Band" is certainly niche. Still, it worked when US indie-rockers the Decemberists approached Olivia Chaney to form Offa Rex. They were long-term lovers of folk-rock; Chaney was a well-known collaborator but relative newcomer (her 2015 debut album, The Longest River, nevertheless gained her support slots with Robert Plant and Shirley Collins).
T his collaboration between English folk star Olivia Chaney and Oregon alt-rockers the Decemberists started as a Twitter dialogue between the singer and Decemberist leader Colin Meloy, who had long nursed a passion for English psych-folk. You're not going to go far wrong with Chaney - a thrilling singer, the Anne Briggs of her generation - on a set of folk standards, but Meloy and co also deliver. A shimmering, echoing ambience includes chiming guitars, drones, cello, harpsichord and harmonium; the churning The Old Churchyard is a standout.
Confessed Anglophile Colin Meloy's affinity for U.K. folk music finally comes full circle on The Queen of Hearts, a meticulously crafted collaboration between the Decemberists and English folk artist Olivia Chaney. Comprising strictly traditional fare, the songs that make up Offa Rex's debut will be familiar to fans of the style, as many of their definitive versions have arrived via genre heavyweights like Anne Briggs, Martin Carthy, Shirley Collins, Ewan MacColl, Fairport Convention, and Steeleye Span.
For all the freak folkies, shoegazers and old school wannabes inhabiting today's acoustic environs, essential English music, replete with all the traditional trappings, doesn't attract much notice these days. The momentary attention accorded Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Steeleye Span, Albion Dance Band and the like back in the day hasn't really resonated or provided the momentum needed to sustain a lingering trend. Credit British singer Olivia Chaney's new outfit Offa Rex, then, for being so bold as to tap into a similar style.