The Owl Service: A Garland of Song

The Owl Service's take on traditional English folk smudges the line between the past and the present, between the lasting sounds of the past and the fledgling noises of the present.

The Owl Service

A Garland of Song

Label: Southern
US Release Date: 2008-06-30
UK Release Date: 2008-05-19

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.






Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.


Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.


Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.


Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.


Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.


Sufjan Stevens' 'The Ascension' Is Mostly Captivating

Even though Sufjan Stevens' The Ascension is sometimes too formulaic or trivial to linger, it's still a very good, enjoyable effort.

Jordan Blum

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.


Sally Anne Morgan Invites Us Into a Metaphorical Safe Space on 'Thread'

With Thread, Sally Anne Morgan shows that traditional folk music is not to be smothered in revivalist praise. It's simply there as a seed with which to plant new gardens.


Godcaster Make the Psych/Funk/Hard Rock Debut of the Year

Godcaster's Long Haired Locusts is a swirling, sloppy mess of guitars, drums, flutes, synths, and apparently whatever else the band had on hand in their Philly basement. It's a highly entertaining and listenable album.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.