The Owl Service’s new album, A Garland of Song, is wholly and unapologetically steeped in tradition. Most of the songs are old English folk ballads, and throughout the album the band attempts a balancing act in playing these songs. Their versions aim to be faithful to the songs, to uphold the tradition they came out of. But they are also songs laced with flourishes that are distinctly the band’s. They may not always be modern touches, but they are always interesting.
“Child Ballad No. 49 (or the Rolling of the Stone)” feels simple enough at first, with a basic organ line pushing the song along, joined by an equally basic acoustic guitar. But then there are these heavy piano notes that sneak into the mix, and a reverberating electric guitar. Before you know it, the song has swelled and grown around you, and it parts only for a screeching guitar solo to close the song out. It is a song full of elements that shouldn’t work together—the light sound of the organ with the deep piano, the bending guitar notes with the sweet, unadorned vocals—but once they converge they become more than the sum of their parts.
“The North Country Maid” similarly announces itself as something simple. But the slight addition of a warbling sitar makes it unique. The guitar work on “Katie Cruel” sounds more like it came out of 60’s Brit-pop than out of the folk tradition. “Apple Tree Man” could be a Kinks outtake. And their beautiful take on “Turpin Hero” may lack the more noticeable surprises of these other songs, but it smartly keeps the instrumentation spare and allows their knack for vocal harmonies to take center stage.
And when the band isn’t reinterpreting, or revisiting, English folk ballads, they are playing their own compelling instrumentals. Songs like “Hoodening” and “Corn Doilies” are quiet, pastoral numbers that work nicely next to the lush sounds of the ballads. But other instrumentals stretch out a little more, and push away from the sound of the record. “The Lammas” is a droning sound experiment, populated by the occasional banjo pluck, as if it isn’t ready to leave tradition completely behind. And “The Dorset Hanging Oak”, perhaps the band’s finest instrumental achievement, is a six-minute-plus psychedelic romp, full of sitar and droning feedback and expansive guitars that make the song swell and recoil like a living, breathing thing.
There are a few moments, like the a capella “Oxford City (or The Jealous Lover)” and the closer “Flanders Shore”, where the personal touches are missing and the band feels stiffly constrained by tradition. But while they make for less interesting fare, those songs are still well-executed and ring true. From top to bottom, A Garland of Song is a success for the Owl Service. It is a beautiful collection of traditional songs and original instrumentals that play off each other nicely, smudging the line between the past and the present, between the lasting sounds of the past and the fledgling noises of the present.
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