The Oral Tradition — Relevant by Association
Folk rock ensemble The Decemberists and multi-talented musician/actress Olivia Chaney have teamed up to create a refreshing side project, Offa Rex. Their new album throws true folk onto the main stage, injecting tunes and songs from the oral traditions of Scotland, Ireland and England with new relevance by way of instrumental rearrangement. There is an overall sound that is reminiscent of the heyday of Irish rock, mixed with the sounds of the 1960s and ’70s folk revivals. Those interested might be compelled to look up the origins of some of these tracks, as original pieces appear to be interspersed with works from the Celtic and English balladic traditions.
The band are described as English folk, as they draw from some of the most prominent collections of English folk songs. Two tracks, “The Gardener” and “Willie O’Winsbury,” represent contemporary renditions of folk songs #100 and #219 as collected by James Francis Child, the foremost English folk music compiler of the 20th century. “The Gardener” is a beautifully wistful song, and fans of the revivalist genre may notice the vocal resemblance to similar group London Grammar. “Willie O’Winsbury” presents a common folk narrative of lovers, one of which is incarcerated. Other themes include sailing, love and loss at sea (“Dark Eyed Sailor,” #265 as collected by Steve Roud) and natural imagery, especially as juxtaposed with or describing beautiful love interests. A few tracks are wholly instrumental, like the hornpipe–jig combo “Constant Billy (Oddington) / I’ll Go Enlist (Sherborne),” a rousing number with fiddles and other traditional and contemporary instruments. The closing track, also, is a brief and polka-like instrumental coda titled “Bobbing a Joe Wheatlay.”
The album is aesthetically pleasing and cohesive, and appears to treat its source material with great artistic care. Standout tracks include “Sheepcrook,” with its vaguely country rock sound and female-fronted vocals; the title track, “The Queen of Hearts,” which evokes a nostalgic folk rock aesthetic and uses a droning instrumental motif that reappears several times on the album; and “Old Churchyard,” an all-around enjoyable folk fixture. Speaking of fixtures, a rendition of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” is also included. It once again utilizes a drone and pays tribute to the countless covers that have come before — the most popular being that of Roberta Flack in 1972. Offa Rex are a match made in folk-music heaven, and going back to one’s roots has seldom sounded so relevant.