If Colin Meloy were some mad scientist at work on a time machine, it’s likely that he would set its dials to travel about a continuum spanning the 17th through 19th centuries when the songs collected by famed folklorist James Francis Childe were being sung amidst the hills and dales of England. With Offa Rex and The Queen of Hearts, Meloy, the mad musical alchemist, has indeed built something of a time machine, dialing into a wormhole that connects the drab, gray 18th century origins of many of the Childe Ballads with the paisley-drenched colours of late 1960s England and its psychedelic-inflected folk revival.
To create Offa Rex, Meloy enlisted the talent of sublime English vocalist Olivia Chaney. A fan of her 2015 Nonesuch debut The Longest River, Meloy initiated a correspondence with the singer that eventually led to her opening some shows with Meloy’s primary band, the Decemberists, during a short tour. From there, the collective gathered with producer Tucker Martine to prepare a collection of covers and Chaney originals for the recording of The Queen of Hearts.
Chaney’s voice instantly evokes the classic singers of the British folk revival: Sandy Denny (Fairport Convention), Jacqui McShee (Pentangle), and Maddy Prior (Steeleye Span). In addition, on “The Gardener” her careful vocal control resembles “This Woman’s Work”-era Kate Bush. Her haunting cover of Ewan MacColl’s “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, accompanied only by a sad harmonium, recalls Denny’s “The Lady” in its sparseness, and where Roberta Flack’s hit version of the song smolders with passion, Chaney’s interpretation is funereal, something to be listened to in reflection, evoking the power of love and loss.
The band harkens many of the British folk revival’s signposts and key figures, adeptly bringing their own flair to their influences. On “Flash Company” guitarist Chris Funk conjures Richard Thompson’s playing, while Jenny Conlee (always the Decemberists’s not-so-secret weapon) evokes the great accordionist Phil Cunningham (Silly Wizard) in her arrangement and playing on the Morris dances “Constant Billy (Oddington) / I’ll Go Enlist (Sherborne)”. Bassist Nate Query channels Pentangle’s great Danny Thompson on “Willy O’ Winsbury”, one of the album’s highlights.
It is John Renbourn’s and Pentangle’s many recorded versions of that classic daemon-lover ballad that could arguably be said to have created a modern standard for adaptation. In Offa Rex’s deft and adventurous interpretation, the guitar melody is simplified yet floats above the lyrical progression as the band takes a page from Pentangle’s own adaptations of jazz figures within for folk. Similarly impressive is the group’s take on Lal Waterson’s “To Make You Stay”, which becomes a duet between Meloy and Chaney, with the band creating a fulfilling bed of sound that doubles the original’s length.
Meloy, his fellow Decemberists, and Chaney spend this album looking backward unapologetically (for an artist wrestling with the challenge of moving the Childe ballads forward into the 21st century, look to The Crane Wife; this overt tribute to that deep affection is a worthy companion that both fits into the Decemberist’s oeuvre and transcends it. The album might even encourage the band’s fans to explore the deep well of British folk music history from which they draw. More important, still, The Queen of Hearts should significantly enlarge Olivia Chaney’s American fan base.
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