There’s a point at exactly a minute into Like A Swimmer In The Ocean that convinced me I was listening to something great. Not just good but outstanding and the sort of moment that places Oysterband amongst a small elite of bands that I hold the most dear. It’s the moment of resolution, when the song makes sense and it’s a clever line, making a point with a simple pay off, but also a moment that sends the emotional volt meter into the red. It’s the last track on the CD and in truth, it’s not the first time in the course of the play back that this thought has occurred, but the effect is cumulative rather than a last minute burst for the line. From start to finish, Diamonds On The Water is quite, quite brilliant.
It’s worth rewinding two years to when June Tabor & Oysterband’s Ragged Kingdom won three of the BBC Folk Awards with June winning a fourth in her own right. The pairing of June Tabor with Oysterband had already born its first fruit some 21 years prior to that success, but as good as their collaborative Freedom And Rain had been in 1990, few would have predicted that they would try it again after more than two decades had elapsed, with even fewer predicting the triumph that resulted. Of course, the fact that they won a clean sweep with awards for Best Band, Best Album, with The Bonnie Bunch Of Roses named Best Traditional Track and to cap it all June Tabor winning Best Singer, is the sort of stuff that guarantees to get a certain section of the Folk Awards’ critics muttering and moaning into their post event pint. But, was it a case of too many eggs in one basket? Well, taking each award individually, the record was head and shoulders above the competition on all counts. So which award would you take away?
The trouble with such noted success is how do you follow it? Perhaps the first thing to remember is that Ragged Kingdom was only the second such collaboration in an Oysterband timeline that spans back over 30 years. If you take their incarnation as Fiddler’s Dram into account – and the timing of the album 25 in 2003 would suggest they do – there are over twenty studio albums to reckon with over that course, which suggests, at the very least, staying power.
The proof that it’s something much more than sheer tenacity is that Diamonds On The Water is so damn good. Sure, it’s a very different record and may not be shot through with the same Folk Awards gold dust. I’m sure they’d love to get the acknowledgement once more, being in the mix of nominees again next year. But I’d bet that even Oysterband would be willing to let someone else take their turn with the prize, if they are deemed to have earned it.
[pullquote]The reverb drenched harmonies, however, are all Oysterband’s and it’s that vocal sound that really turns this into a great record.[/pullquote]After all, the collective strength of being part of a vibrant, healthy folk scene is not something Oysterband have always been able to enjoy. Despite their own best efforts, there have been times when their folk-rock has been desperately out of synch with prevailing styles. Folk’s current renaissance and even its Mumford confusion could be good for Diamonds On The Water. Anyway, that and any possible future recognition is just speculation, with the latter taking us another year on from now, so who knows? But no crystal ball is required to enjoy the album in the here and now and through all of those months to come.
The lack of JT isn’t the only change for this new record, with Ray ‘Chopper’ Cooper, the band’s bass man and cellist moving on to seek the challenges of a solo career. It’s an unusual development in what has proved to be an enduring line up, a change of drummer or two apart, since Chopper joined in 1988. A sense of how unusual this is for the band can perhaps be gained from the fact that no permanent replacement has been named as yet, although the rest of the band’s core remains intact. Producer Al Scott is the stand in for Chopper on the record with Adrian Oxaal on cello and Lindsey Oliver on double bass also guesting.
I mentioned that emotional spike in the last song and it comes as John Jones sings, “Like a swimmer in the ocean leaves his clothes upon the shore, like a lover in commotion drops his shoes upon the floor, like the ghost of Gary Cooper checks his guns in at the door, I leave these songs with you.” The lyrics resolve in that final phrase as the gift of song is given. In such a clever way, all that has happened over the last 40 odd minutes is neatly summed up. The song is carried by a simple acoustic guitar and some gorgeous mandolin picking, with just a gentle lift from the fiddle at the end, a brief but perfectly judged conclusion to the record.
Like A Swimmer In The Ocean is one of the shortest and simplest arrangements on the album, and captures Jon in especially fine voice. But it’s also a bookend as the album opens with another song about the business of making music. A Clown’s Heart also shows the vocal strength of the ensemble as the A cappella intro offers, “A clown’s heart and a mandolin, crazy hearted fools sing as one,” as indeed they do. It’s a belter of an opener that sounds like a perfect exemplar of folk rock styling. The chiming guitar arpeggio brings those originators, The Byrds to mind and again there is that lift from the fiddle, just when you need it. The reverb drenched harmonies, however, are all Oysterband’s and it’s that vocal sound that really turns this into a great record.
I guess the sound of Diamonds On The Water could be called classic Oysterband although perhaps there’s more than a hint of Levellers’ drive and energy, surging through the entire record. Interestingly, this was once more recorded at The Metway, the Levellers Brighton base, but it’s also worth noting it’s Oysterband’s first album of new songs since Meet You There from 2007. That release was swiftly followed by acoustic re-workings of some classics from their catalogue, The Oxford Girl And Other Stories, to mark their 30th anniversary the following year. But with only Ragged Kingdom since, focussing on traditional songs and covers, this new record marks a return to writing their own new material and puts the creative focus back on John Jones, Alan Prosser and Ian Telfer.
They’ve clearly been holding a few gems in store too, with Once I Had A Sweetheart being the only song plucked from the tradition, arranged magnificently by Alan. The rest of the songs are all new and credited to various combinations of the above three, with Chopper also contributing to a couple before his departure. One of those is A River Runs, a song that charts a relationship with its turbulence and meandering, it packs an emotional punch, but you might also call the music lean and muscular.
Of course, the more you play the record, the more the apparent stripped back simplicity of it all starts to melt away to reveal the subtle layering and fine details that make for an exceptional record. There are surprises along the way, the wonderful vocal duet between John and Rowan Godel, who often joins him on his walking tours, on Lay Your Dreams Down Gently, or the crunching rocker Palace Of Memory, are just two highlights to pick out. It’s listening to the album as a whole, however, that really elevates it as each track has it’s place, but as it gives way to the next, the cumulative effect just builds and builds. It’s that directness combined with the soaring vocal harmonies that runs through these songs and much like a river, the flow is impossible to resist.
I’ve recently read that the way we are interacting with and consuming our music is changing dramatically. The rise of streaming, with all manner of sexy new devices designed to connect us to seemingly limitless libraries of songs, may well be the last hurrah for the album. Paradoxically, the same magazine also carried an article about a record club whose members meet to play vinyl albums from start to finish. The members bring their own records, with each meeting’s selections pulled from a hat, so you never know what you might get to listen to. The ritual none the less demands the participants’ total attention, with the only interruption allowed being to change over from side A to B. I’ve said it before but giving your total attention to a record in this way tends to have its own pay back.
So then, the answer to the question of how to follow Ragged Kingdom is that you make a record that’s every bit as good. It happily means that however you choose to play it, because play it you should, these Diamonds On The Water are treasure indeed and over the 45 minutes you immerse yourself in these musical oceans, the richest of rewards are yours for the taking.
Review by: Simon Holland
Diamonds On The Water is released 17 Feb 2014 via Navigator Records.
Order the Ltd Autographed Edition via Proper Music
Oysterband are touring throughout the UK from 26th February before heading to Germany in April. For full details and ticket links please visit: http://www.oysterband.co.uk/tour-dates/