Offa Rex is The Decemberists joining forces with English folk singer, songwriter and musician Olivia Chaney. If you recall I’m a real Decemberists fanboy, obsessive some might say. Head Decemberist Colin Meloy is a big fan of traditional folk music, particularly the British folk singers of the late 50’s and early 60’s, the likes of Shirley Collins and the Ian Campbell folk groups.
“The Queen Of Hearts” is a mixture of arrangements of traditional folk songs (the title track, “Blackleg Miner”, “Flash Company”, “Willie O' Winsbury” and others) alongside more modern folk songs by Ewan MacColl (the wonderful “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face”), Steeleye Span (“Sheepcrook And Black Dog”) and Lal & Mike Waterson (“To Make You Stay”). It’s a folk album, OK, if you have trouble with that then you may want to avoid this, or you could read/listen on and have your mind changed ? As we have discussed before “folk music” covers a multitude of styles, it is music of the folk, music that the folk perform, I’ve even heard an argument that Punk Rock could be considered folk music.
This record was released in 2017. The Decemberists were quite the name in Indie-Rock circles by then having just finished the world tour for their 7th album “What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World”. Olivia Chaney had released her debut album, “The Longest River”, in 2015 (it received rave reviews not just in the folk world but from the rock press too). Colin Meloy, as a fan, had started a conversation with Chaney on Twitter that eventually led to support dates on a Decemberists tour and finally spawned the question “Have you ever thought of having a backing group? We’ll be your Albion Dance Band”.
It’s not all mandolins, fiddles and finger in the ear earnestness, it is The Decemberists after all so there’s definitely a twinkle in the eye of the performances and some of these songs have strident political messages, it is music of the folk remember. Olivia Chaney is quite the singer which becomes very obvious on opening song “The Queen Of Hearts”. She’s obviously steeped in traditional British Folk music, with echoes of Sandy Denny and Shirley Collins, but this is a confident and soaring voice not a folk tribute act. Colin Meloy has that cheeky lilt in his voice as he sings “Blackleg Miner” which is quite the thing considering he’s singing a song advocating violence against strikebreakers ! To also hear an American sing in a Northumberland dialect is quite amusing, he really isn’t confident on the line “So divvent gan near the Seghill mine” (the song originates from the miners lockout in Seghill, Northumberland in 1844, a lockout which was broken by scab labour. It was revived during the 1980’s Miners Strike).
That’s one of the last times we hear Mr Meloy’s voice on the album. He does return briefly later (backing vocals on “Bonnie May” and something else we’ll get to) but honestly did intend for The Decemberists to be Olivia Chaney’s backing group. Their version of “Flash Company” really does channel their inner Fairport, both via Chaney’s voice and Chris Funk’s guitar work. “Constant Billy/ I'll Go Enlist” is 2 minutes of wild Hootenany-tastic, Accordian driven traditional dance music arranged by Jenny Conlee.
Where the sound of The Decemberists makes it self most obvious is on the final 2 songs “Sheepcrook And Black Dog” and “To Make You Stay”. The two segue into each other led off by a Proggy guitar riff by Chris Funk (Prog-Folk anyone ?) reminiscent of earlier Decemberists songs like “The Island…” (https://www.whiterabbitrecords.co.uk/blog/read_203773/2023-albums-thing-098-the-decemberists-the-crane-wife.html). Olivia Chaney takes the lead on “Sheepcrook…”, Colin Meloy takes over on “To Make You Stay” which could very easily have been lifted from a Decemberists record. The two songs together set Folk music in a very contemporary frame.
I bloody love The Decemberists, there’s something about Colin Meloy’s voice and singing style that I find endlessly fascinating. I’m sure this was a labour of love for him (fortunately, unlike a certain Brummie “Reggae” group, he hasn’t been tempted to make Vol.2 or 3 or…) and the love of this music shines through on this album. There was folk music of this type around the house when we were kids, my Dad had a connection with the folk musicians of Birmingham as a young man via his politics and at one time worked with and befriended The Dubliners Luke Kelly (we have the pictures to prove it) so this album rings a bell for me. Britain (sorry I really mean England as Scotland, Ireland and Wales have no such difficulty) does have a problem with its own Folk Music, how many of you would run screaming from a Morris Team or an Arran jumpered “finger in the ear” singer in a pub ? I’ve seen it suggested that Colin Meloy and The Decemberists were trying with this album to make British Folk music cool…I’d suggest, if you know anything about the band, that they couldn’t believe that it wasn’t cool anyway.
Sheepcrook And Black Dog - https://youtu.be/XRRyIfC1Hvc?si=SRf_SDAvs0iAZNXE