Tabor has reunited with the Oysterband for a second album, Ragged Kingdom and the two suit each other better now than when the first album, Freedom and Rain, made in 1991. Considering that the first album was magnificent, many of us had high expectations for this album. It a very different creature, and very good.
Twenty-one years ago, pairing up June Tabor with the Oysterband was an odd idea. Both perform English folk, but June Tabor’s intense, spare versions of mostly traditional songs pushed listeners to sharpen their ears and open their hearts as her voice carries the full emotional freight of traditional ballads. Meanwhile, the Oysterband was getting louder, angrier, more electric, and performing more contemporary songs commenting on more contemporary politics: their music pushed listeners to raise a ruckus. That “Freedom and Rain” worked at all was surprising, that it worked very well was astonishing and satisfying.
Since then, Tabor has continued to grow in maturity and craft (not that she was lacking either). And the Oysterband has changed, and changed again, through punk and protest songs to the realization that the volume can, actually, be turned down without losing intensity or energy, and in songwriting. After 20 years of watching the Oysterband, they continue to surprise me with each album.
Quite apart from the melodies or the lyrics, the sound of Ragged Kingdom is wonderful. Hearing June Tabor’s voice continues to be an extraordinary experience. The aural equivalent of a mouthful of exquisitely crafted, impossibly umami-rich chocolate. Also, the sound is mixed beautifully. Tabor’s voice, which is not particularly loud, is always in the forefront.
That said, the album has seven traditional songs and four covers, from P.J. Harvey, Joy Division, Shel Silverstein, Bob Dylan trying to be trad, and R & B classic, “Dark End of the Street”. My favorite song is the trad “Fountains Flowing”, which I suspect that every English folk musician has sung (there are plenty of versions to be had). Bright chords and bouncy tune over a story of grief, loss, going off to war and death? That’s classic Oysterband. I love it.
The first two tracks (“Bonny Bunch of Roses”, with driving guitar and drums behind Tabor’s singing, and then “That Was My Veil” a cover of P.J. Harvey and John Parish’s song) sound like June Tabor with a backing band.(Which, to be clear, I liked.) But with “Son David”, we start hearing more from the Oysters, with John Jones singing responses.
“Son David” is a version of the Child Ballad, Edward, to the tune used for “Donkey Riding”. I’m used to watching 12-year-olds galley left to that music, which leads to a little cognitive dissonance while listening to the classic tale of mindless fratricide. That said, the singing is lovely, with Jones and Tabor trading verses.
They sing together also on “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division. Here it sounds like the most trad of heartbreak songs, and the rich cello adds a lovely depth.
“(When I Was No But) Sweet Sixteen” is another traditional song, from the singing of Scotland’s Jeannie Robertson. It is yet another song reminding us that even when contraceptives weren’t easily available, abstinence never entirely worked and the woman ends up holding the baby. (This might have hit a sore spot.)
By the lyrics alone,”If My Love Loves Me” is the most cheerful song on the album, with lovers declared and united (and alive) at the end. It is another Child Ballad, in which Willie resorts to subterfuge to get Annie to declare her feelings. By playing dead. Humans do the darnedest things. The violin is particularly lovely here.
“The Hills of Shiloh” by Shel Silverstein song. I’m so used to June Tabor transforming her source material that I was surprised to recognize some of the phrasings from Judy Collins’ version.
“The Dark End of the Street” — another duet, to the best song about cheating, ever.
There are no songs here that obviously inspire a knees-up mosh pit. (The ecstatic moshing during the Freedom and Rain tour was my first experience with the Oysterband.) But then, this is not a Saturday-night-at-the-club album that celebrates getting sweaty and jubilant with strangers. It’s the album I’ll play on Sunday afternoon, sharing a homebrew with a old friend on the porch.
This album is full of stories worth retelling, of people being people in all their universal and contrary humanity. The entire album is about desserts (occasionally just, often otherwise), the wages of sin and love, loss and broken trust and endings. June Tabor and Oysterband handle the songs with maturity and craft, with not a whit of melodrama.
Ragged Kingdom is beautifully done.