The enthusiast's audio webzine

Oysterband : Deserters

Cooking Vinyl – Cook CD 041

Oysterband - DesertersThe recent breakthrough of Bellowhead in the UK is yet another of those moments when the English discover that they have a vibrant, deep and long musical heritage that – although not mainstream – is sustained by a loyal fan base of festival- and concert-goers. And so I went to the library in the East Wing and dug out a mid-period disc from one of the stalwarts of the English Folk Rock world, the indefategable Oysterband,

‘Deserters’ is as good an entry point to this world as any, giving a taste of the old and new, the mellow and the energetic spiced with a lyrical style that is political without being polemical. Ten of the eleven tracks on the album are self-penned with Telfer, Jones and Prosser leading the credits and only the last, ‘Bells of Rhymney’, a folk classic based on Idris Davies’s 1926 poem of the same name, is borrowed and given the full Oysterband treatment.

For those new to the Oysterband the album opens with a typical example of their style. “All That Way For This” shows off John Jones’s clear and smooth vocals balanced by Ian Telfer’s energetic fiddle playing and driven along by the clean and tight rhythms of Lee and Chopper who give the band much of its unique feel. Of course, having sung the praises of the English Folk Rock oeuvre, lyrically, this opening pays homage to a faded American dream. Such is the life of a critic.

If there was any justice in the world then “The Deserter” should be heard in a stadium with sixty thousand people all singing the swaying anthemic chorus. It will never happen because not only is there no justice in the world, but I suspect the boys just wouldn’t want to be that far away from their audience.

Let’s move on through the fine and functional “Angels of the River” to “We Could Leave Right Now” which is one of those mood pieces the boys do every so often. Chopper’s insistent cello providing the edgy drive over Lee’s muted drums and lyrics that are evocative, wistful and vague. They do this; they create a musical canvas and invite you to paint your own pictures. Clever boys.

Half way through the album and “Elena’s Shoes” bring us back into the quirky but firm political commentary that runs through their world like a seam of coal, sometimes thick and obvious, sometimes thin and subtle, but always there. But the real action follows with “Granite Years,” a full-on, folk rock tub thumper with an audience participating chorus, Jones giving it all on the melodeon and Prosser finger-picking his way through the whole song. A good old pub knees up with a glorious ceilidh-style instrumental towards the end. Are you dancing yet? Oh come on, you know you want to!

It’s tracks like “Granite Years” that reveal the soul of the Oysterband and to see them live is to see a band that you know just lives for the show and the energy they can put into and get back from a room, a hall, a tent, a festival field. Over the years they’ve done their “unplugged” albums and tours, they’ve toured with guests, they tour as a Celidh Band. Whatever, wherever, they just want to play.

The boys go pop for “Diamond for a Dime,” sing of love and throw in some delicious couplets such as “So night falls on the station and your heart’s desire / a diamond in the darkness, a messenger of fire,” and then create another of their mood pieces in “Never Left”. Unusually heavy on the electric guitar, Alan Prosser pulls some big chords as Jones strikes just the right level of restraint in his vocals. And then “Ship Sets Sail” finishes off this section of the record before the big finish.

“Fiddle or a Gun” explores familiar territory for the band as they question war and loss in a foot-tapping, high tempo, fiddle filled four minutes that just begs an audience to dance. And that’s the Oysterband for you: fun, energetic, romantic, wistful.

They leave the best until last. “The Bells of Rhymney” could rightly be described as an old war horse. First loosed on the public by Pete Seeger in the late 50s and then covered by everyone since, including The Byrds, Bob Dylan, Cher, Jimmy Page and John Denver. It’s easy to imagine John Jones wanting to do the song a capella, in the manner of Cole Not Dole, an Oysterband favourite, but it would have been too close to Pete Seeger’s original. With a nod to Judy Collins’ interpretation the boys have moved away from the singer-songwriter one-voice-and-guitar style and created a massive heavy sound that is as strong as the mines, the coal, and the communities that Davies was writing about and an atmosphere that is heavy with regret yet still proud and strong. Driven by Lee’s loose drum loops that create tumbling thunder underneath a pleading refrain laid down by Prosser’s guitar, Oysterband put the song right back into the Welsh valleys. This is muscular melancholy.

So what do we have here? Is it folk, is it rock? Is it English? Yes to all three is the simple answer but doubtless pubs and media courses will debate the finer points of such definitions for……well, forever. And while they do, it doesn’t change the fact that this is a group that is hitting its stride musically, balancing its heritage and its politics and marking the start of a purple patch that ran throughout the 90s.

Track listing

  1. All That Way For This
  2. The Deserter
  3. Angels Of The River
  4. We Could Leave Right Now
  5. Elena’s Shoes
  6. Granite Years
  7. Diamond For A Dime
  8. Never Left
  9. Ship Sets Sail
  10. Fiddle Or A Gun
  11. Bells Of Rhymney





Readers' comments

    I’m so thankful that my local NPR station played ‘Angels of the River’ years ago and made me aware of this band!

Leave a Comment