One of our most accomplished exponents of traditional song, June Tabor, has once again teamed up with folk-rock heroes Oysterband to produce a collaborative collection, Ragged Kingdom. As with their former hugely successful meeting of minds, Freedom And Rain (21 years ago…you can’t rush these things), the amalgamation of June Tabor’s regal voice and Oysterband’s lively eclecticism promises much and delivers even more. There’s plenty in here for your average ballad geek to get excited about, as well as some first class interpretations of contemporary song.
In opening the album, Bonny Bunch Of Roses gallops from the speakers like a messenger from the battlefield, giving us the first hint of the vocal explorations and engaging arrangements on offer. But before we get too comfortable, we’re immediately taken in a startling change of direction. In PJ Harvey’s That Was My Veil, an emphatic bass drum and jangly acoustic guitar provide a darker note. June Tabor’s vocal sweeps headlong towards a far less controlled and exact style than what we’re used to. It’s a revelation and a joy, I’m already hoping to hear more of this June Tabor I’ve never heard before, as she warms to the role of folk rock Goddess.
Son David is well known under a variety of titles. John Jones and June Tabor’s mother/son conversation works perfectly. Then contrasts abound once more as Ian Curtis’s lament to a life laid bear, Love Will Tear Us Apart, is stripped to the bone and related beautifully. In comparison with the lavish production of the Joy Division original, the band have reduced this to two, perfectly matched, voices, guitar and a heart-rending violin/cello combination. The song places every ounce of heartache directly into your soul.
(When I Was No But) Sweet Sixteen gives ploughboys the usual bad press in a classic favourite of Jeannie Robertson. With the unaccompanied choral backing this song leaves us in no doubt about just how steadfastly proud of the tradition the artists are. Judas (Was A Red-Headed Man) brings us back to the reason why June Tabor and Oysterband are such a captivating and effective combination. Dramatic guitar and percussion, strident violin with Tabor’s flawlessly delivered vocal. Striking imagery highlights the danger of superstition and evokes age-old rituals.
In If My Love Loves Me another well known ballad is given a suitably dramatic rendition before the band approach The Hills of Shiloh. The approach has a lot in common with the best known version of this song, from 1963, but with a far greater, and fitting, emphasis on the Blues than Judy Collins ever managed.
June Tabor has previously recorded Fountains Flowing unaccompanied. However this rich, full band rendition compliments the song’s pedigree. The Leaves Of Life continues the religious references and follows in the footsteps of such illustrious company as Norma Waterson and Sandy Denny, as if the company we’re enjoying isn’t illustrious enough. The pace soon picks up again with Bob Dylan’s Seven Curses. Chopper Cooper’s throaty, stomping cello encourages June Tabor to let loose a powerful vocal performance which John Jones supports with relish.
In The Dark End Of The Street, John Jones’ concertina provides a perfect accompaniment to Dan Penn and Chips Moman’s soul classic. This tale of illicit love closes the album on a beautiful vocal combination that makes you want to go back to the beginning and start all over again.
June Tabor and Oysterband have provided far more than a heady mix of traditional ballads and contemporary songwriting. The album raises the spirit and tears at the soul in turn. It takes all the artists involved in new directions, each and every one of them revelling in the exploration of uncharted territory. The band have succeeded in creating something that, while instantly recognizable as June Tabor, fully representative of Oysterband, also becomes far more than the sum of its parts. With Ragged Kingdom as its basis, the forthcoming tour should be a resounding success and I would look forward to hearing, and seeing June Tabor revel a little longer in the less structured vocal performances she’s given here. My only disappointment is that they wont be coming far enough north for me to enjoy it.
Full Album Preview
ALBUM PREVIEW HAS NOW ENDED
1 Bonny Bunch Of Roses
2 That Was My Veil
3 Son David
4 Love Will Tear Us Apart
5 (When I Was No But) Sweet Sixteen
6 Judas (Was A Red-Headed Man)
7 If My Love Loves Me
8 The Hills Of Shiloh
9 Fountains Flowing
10 The Leaves Of Life
11 Seven Curses
12 The Dark End Of The Street