I begged GMR to let me review this 2-CD compilation by Oysterband because I’ve been a committed Oysters’ fan for many years and possess almost all their recordings.“Who better,” I asked myself, “to review this collection of their songs than someone who has known and loved the band’s work for decades?” At the same time, of course, I was determined to listen critically and throw brickbats if required.
The band’s website describes this double album as “a 29-track collection comprising 15 tracks chosen by the band from their last 6 studio albums and 14 unreleased tracks, rare B-sides, live cuts, demos and alternative versions of other Oysterband songs.” Well, after listening to the recordings with the enormous pleasure that I always get from Oysterband’s work, I can’t help wondering whether I really am the best critic. My problem is not with the band’s performance, which is mostly terrific here, but with the selection. You see, if you were to shut 25 Oysterband fans in a room on January 1st and not let them out until they’d agreed on the 15 tracks from the last six albums that are the best or most representative or most underrated or most deserving of a new listen, and in addition charge them with selecting 14 unreleased tracks from the band’s archives, they would no doubt still be arguing on December 31st – and not necessarily of the same year!
The 15 songs on CD 1 actually appear to come only from the last 5, not 6, studio recordings, and there’s nothing from before 1999: 5 (including the title track) from Rise Above (2002), 4 from Meet You There (2007), 3 from Diamonds On The Water (2014), 2 from Here I Stand (1999) and just 1 from Ragged Kingdom (2011), which is the Oysters’ second joint venture with June Tabor, following their outstanding collaboration on Freedom And Rain in 1990. By my reckoning, the last 6 studio recordings should have taken us back to 1997’s Deep Dark Ocean. By omitting the last-named, a very fine album, the band missed the chance to give listeners the rare treat of hearing John Jones sing ‘Native Son’ in Welsh. There are other songs on Deep Dark Ocean that I would have been happy to see here, such as ‘Sail On By’, from which the album’s title is drawn, or the splendid ‘Milford Haven’, another reference to Jones’s Welsh roots. But I don’t mind, as I have the disc and often listen to it: if I regret the absence of these songs, it’s because I’m thinking of the purchasers who might buy this compilation as an introduction to Oysterband’s work.
Surprisingly (for me, anyway) three further songs originally featured on Here I Stand appear on the second CD, of which more anon, suggesting to me that with five of its tracks covered here, Oysterband must be particularly fond of this album and the songs of that period.
As I have hinted, if it was up to me I would probably have chosen a rather different assortment of songs for CD1, although I certainly won’t dispute the choice of the stand-out track from Ragged Kingdom, a heart-rending cover of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. This song was also previously recorded by Tabor and John Jones as part of the Big Session concerts that brought and the Oysters together with a diverse musicians from the folk world in the broadest sense: Eliza Carthy, The Handsome Family, Ben Ivitsky, Jim Moray, James O’Grady and Show of Hands.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The essential point is that if you are an avid Oysterband collector you already possess the 15 recordings on CD 1, only one of which, ‘Dancing As Fast As I Can’, differs from the album version, being the single edit, and like your humble reviewer you will spend hours scratching your head while trying to decide why the band chose these particular cuts to exemplify what they have been up to in the last 17 years. Perhaps understandably, with the exception of the above-mentioned Joy Division number and two traditional songs (‘Blackwaterside’, ‘Bright Morning Star’), the first disc contains only the band’s own compositions. Well they would not really want to showcase other people’s material on their own retrospective CD, would they?
Obviously, for existing fans it is the second disc, offering previously unavailable recordings, that is the real attraction, and this one casts its net far wider than the limited period covered by disc 1. It opens with a declamatory new song from John Jones, ‘I Built This House’, which I interpret as an anthem for the fight against the scourge of home repossession. Its refrain gives the double album its title. This song, which maintains the Oysters’ established reputation for political comment and commitment, is the only one whose words appear in the booklet, although there is a handy link to the webpage where the lyrics of all Oysterband songs may be found.
The rest of the unreleased material covers previously recorded songs going back as far as the 1986 album Step Outside (1986). There is an insistent, powerful remix of ‘Ways Of Holding On’ from Here I Stand, a rousing live recording of ‘Jail Song Two’, previously heard on Little Rock To Leipzig (1990), and also from the pre-1999 period an alternative take of ‘Never Left’, which appears on Deserters (1992). Rarely for the current Oysterband, there is even an instrumental track, ‘The Sailor’s Bonnet’, actually an obscure B-side of a single released in 1995. This traditional tune is a useful reminder of Oysterband’s origins as a dance band, the Oyster Ceilidh Band. They can still get you dancing as well as they could some 40 years ago – gosh, is it really as long as that?
Perhaps the oddest inclusion is a brooding, slightly menacing alternative version of Si Kahn’s ‘Mississippi’, its folky, acoustic guitar and fiddle-driven slowburn atmosphere contrasting starkly with the driving electric version sung by the blessed June Tabor on the album that she made with the Oysters in 1990, Freedom And Rain (”freedom and rain” is in fact a phrase found in this very song). This is one of my favorite albums of all time, folkrock at its best, and I am very familiar with it, so when I first heard this different treatment of a song that I know so well I felt uncomfortable and bewildered and couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to do this to the song. Now, after four or five listens, I love it as much as its predecessor. You don’t always have to choose a favorite version.
Good though the songs performed here are, there are some classics in the Oysters’ locker whose absence distresses me, because I think people using this “twofer” as an introduction to the band would perhaps appreciate them more than some of those performed here. There’s ‘Another Quiet Night In England’, ‘The Oxford Girl’, ‘On The Edge’, ‘This Is The Voice‘ and ‘Wide Blue Yonder’ – all songs that devoted fans will surely miss. Also sadly absent is the Oysters’ great version of the much-covered ‘I Fought The Law’, written by Sonny Curtis of the Crickets way back in the 60s: perhaps Oysterband didn’t want to be compared with The Clash, who have also covered it.
The band’s roots in traditional music are not overlooked, for in addition to the instrumental already noted, there are versions of Bold Riley (different from the one on Step Outside) and The Cornish Farewell Shanty, of which another take appears on The Big Session, volume 1. Which brings me to the only cut on the double album that I really dislike, a plodding rendition of the traditional I Once Loved A Lass. Apart from not liking this version I wonder why the band chose a warhorse recorded by so many other singers and bands rather than one of the other traditional gems in their repertoire: a good one would be the Cornish anthem Hal-an-Tow or, from the same region, the Cornish Six-Hand Reel.
I realize that I’ve taken an easy way out by suggesting songs and tunes that might have been included without ruthlessly calling for the deletion of several other numbers to make room for them. If you buy this double album, you’ll have your own ideas about what could be omitted to make space for personal favorites. And if you don’t know the band’s work, forget my carping, buy this package and you’ll be in for a real treat. Overall, do I recommend it? Of course I do: as I told you, I am a fan of Oysterband and I’m glad to have some new stuff for my collection.
(Running Ma, 2015)