From their origins in Kent in the mid-1970s Oysterband have, across a range of lineups and styles, become one of the English folk scene’s enduring musical landmarks, with a well-deserved reputation for their live shows as well as a consistently high standard of recorded output. While the band has long been held in high regard by folk fans, the crossover commercial success of the likes of Fairport Convention or Bellowhead has so far eluded them, a situation which will hopefully be put right with this excellent new compilation. This House Will Stand: The Best of Oysterband 1998-2015 provides a comprehensive overview of the last seventeen years (give or take!) of the band’s life and times in the form of a 2CD set of 29 tracks drawn, roughly half-and-half, from their last five studio albums along with a selection of fourteen unreleased tracks, B-sides, live cuts, demos and alternate versions.
The first CD (This House Will Stand) contains a cross-section of material from the albums with Rise Above (2002) and Meet You There (2007) taking the lion’s share; a couple of tracks each from Here I Stand (1999) and Diamonds on the Water (2014), while Ragged Kingdom (the 2011 collaboration with June Tabor) is represented by just the one track although, to be fair, it is an absolute gem.
All in all, this first CD makes a great refresher of the last two decades of the band’s history with something to offer for everyone, long-time fan and newcomer alike. Consequently, it’s a tough call to pick out individual highlights – full credit to whoever was behind the choice and sequencing of the selected tracks! – although, if pushed, I’d definitely include ‘The Soul’s Electric’ (for its earworm of a hook), ‘Here Comes The Flood’ (because a bit of insightful social commentary is always welcome) and ‘Walking Down The Road With You’ for its sheer exuberance. And – lest we forget! – the band’s reworking of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, the Joy Division song, with June Tabor’s crystal voice is pretty much a timeless classic of its own, a must-hear if you aren’t already familiar with the Ragged Kingdom album.
From there, with her appetite thoroughly whetted, the listener will undoubtedly plunge headfirst into the second disc, proudly (and rightfully) subtitled The Work Of My Own Hands. Overflowing with a wealth of rarities in the form of a comprehensive selection of unreleased tracks, B-sides, live cuts, demos and alternate versions it is, as you might expect, an entirely different cup of tea, but no less engrossing for that. Despite such a diverse collection of sources, it still manages to retain the overall sense of cohesion that makes the first CD such a pleasurable listen. If anything, the downhome rawness of early demos nestling cheek by jowl with the studio polish of the outtakes and B-sides adds a certain edgy texture to the overall feel of the set.
Highlights of this second CD are many and varied, ranging from the introspective, alternate version of ‘Never Left’, and ‘Hangman Cry’ (the B-side of ‘Cry Cry’) for the wiry bassline that just doesn’t quit. The rootsy jigging of ‘The Sailor’s Bonnet’ (B-side of ‘Long Dark Street’) is hard to resist, too, evoking in fine style the band’s original incarnation as a ceilidh band (read their recollections of performing at Sidmouth Folk Week as a fledgling ceilidh band back in 1979). And why the cover of the traditional ‘I Once Loved A Lass’ has only ever seen the light of day before on a (now long out-of-print) compilation from the guardians of the flame at fRoots magazine, must remain a mystery; it’s a stunningly good reworking which more than deserves its place on this CD.
As I mentioned earlier, the tracklists of both discs are sequenced out of chronological order; nevertheless the collection as a whole flows remarkably well. This, I think, is due in no small part to the continuity brought to the band’s musical vision by the longstanding core membership of three of its founders (John Jones, Ian Telfer and Alan Prosser). This continuity has, paradoxically, allowed Oysterband to explore a range of musical styles over the years, from traditional folk such as ‘Blackwaterside’ and ‘Bright Morning Star’, to the more overtly political folk/punk like ‘Long Dark Street’ and the almost stadium rock of ‘Dancing As Fast As I Can’. This range of influences and styles comes together very nicely in the newly-recorded ‘I Built This House’ which opens the second disc: the pointed social commentary is still there in the lyrics, but the very on-point folk/rock arrangement makes it both accessible and, I feel, a big commercial success just waiting to happen and finally bring Oysterband the mainstream recognition they so richly deserve.
This House Will Stand: The Best of Oysterband 1998-2015 presents an absorbing insight into the most creatively successful period of the band’s long history. The studio recordings featured on the first disc make a top notch ‘best of’ compilation, while the alternate takes and demos of the second CD add a whole other dimension to the story. This is a comprehensive and essential overview of one of the folk scene’s finest bands and is recommended to established fans and newcomers alike.
Upcoming tour dates include a tour of Canada (July) and Germany (November) as well as many UK appearances including Sidmouth Folk Week (Oysters3), Moseley Folk Festival, Cecil Sharp House and many more. Visit their website for full details and ticket links here: www.oysterband.co.uk