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OFFA REX - QUEEN OF HEARTS: REVIEW


OFFA REX

Queen Of Hearts (Nonesuch)

Wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff.

Not just, as the Doctor told us, what time/space are all about, but a possible definition of folk rock as it was writ/recorded in the 1960s and early ‘70s.

The traditional (tales of errant men and lost children, high handed lords and backhanded women, along with fiddles, flutes and squeeze boxes) were mixed with the modern (electric guitars, drum kits, full bands prepared to get heavy, and the occasional reminder that high handed lords still existed).

To that, add warbling voices and wibbly guitar solos, an elastic notion of time’s relevance, and strong women like Maddy Prior, Sandy Denny and June Tabor (and more vulnerable women such as Vashti Bunyan too) who, as ever, had to compete with dominant and dominating men.

It was old and new, time-specific and timeless, intermittently popular but influential –wibbly, wobbly timey wimey stuff.

Offa Rex, Englishwoman Olivia Chaney and American band The Decemberists, have taken a musical Tardis on this trip which positions the oddly named group right in the middle of the folk revival/folk rock birth of the late 1960s.

As much can be told from the opening notes of the title track, which opens the album with harpsichord, Chaney’s powerful but variegated voice slightly distant, and the feel of a medieval court dance.

Or for that matter the second track, Blackleg Miner, where the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy takes the lead against a fiddle and drone, sounding like a pub orator winding up a proto-union gathering.

Wisely, it is Cheney’s voice – last seen in these parts two years ago as she mixed Purcell and French songs with English folk at the Sydney Festival - which dominates on the album.

It is an instrument that like that of Prior and Denny carries drama inherently, so she doesn’t have to overwork, and yet is more mannered than contemporary singers, so you never feel you’re in a pop setting in any way.

When she sings Ewan MacColl’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face (the songs on The Queen Of Hearts drawing from the likes of Lal Waterson and MacColl as well as long traditional tunes) she stretches and holds the melody over the harmonium drone so effortlessly you can lose yourself within and come up a little startled as the song ends in just over three minutes.

By contrast, in the twice-as-long Willie O’Winsbury, Cheney almost dances with the melody, that dance partnered by the nimble bass of Nate Query and accompanied by lightly-picked acoustic guitar.

Acoustic guitar gives way to some ‘eavy ‘eavy electric in Sheepcrook And Black Dog, which has enough of a sludge effect to suggest more Mudhoney (or their beloved Black Sabbath) than Steeleye Span.

And while the sludge recedes in To Make You Stay (where Meloy reclaims centre stage) to leave electric bass and piano prominent, there’s a definite sense of Moroccan hash smoke drifting across the room for that psychedelic gauze to descend.

If this appears at first blush to be a genre exercise, Chaney and the Decemberists wash away that impression by just taking the music seriously but never earnestly, with curiosity rather than certainty.

Like any half decent time lord I suppose.

SPOTIFY: Listen to Offa Rex – The Queen Of Hearts here

APPLE MUSIC: Listen to Offa Rex – The Queen Of Hearts here

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