Singer Olivia Chaney gave us one of the most treasurable albums of 2015, The Longest River, and her latest venture into the recording studio finds her fully embracing the many faces of folk-rock in the company of Portland, Oregon indie band The Decemberists. The two acts might be considered unlikely bedfellows, but the story goes that the Decemberists' Colin Meloy, following his admiration of Olivia's album and her supporting the band on a US tour, offered his band to be her backing group, having in mind the specific example of the Albion Dance Band backing Shirley Collins on her seminal No Roses album. This was a kind of lightbulb moment; Olivia fairly jumped at the chance, and soon she was heading off into the studio, the result of which session was this album.
It clearly pays deep homage to its role-model - and to the folk-rock tradition - while moving that tradition onward. It also pays homage to the psych- or wyrd- end of folk-rock, audibly stepping both backwards and forwards in time from its No Roses era - for instance, the prominent tinkling folk-baroque harpsichord that's almost over-exposed in the texture of The Queen Of Hearts' opening (title) track could have come from vintage 1968/69 psych-folk or from the "future" psych-folk of Trembling Bells and the like. The crushing heavy-duty electric guitars of Old Churchyard are more redolent of doom-metal than folk-rock, and provide a perfect foil to Olivia's voice (I never imagined comparing her to Grace Slick, but it turns out no idle comparison when she soars majestically aloft). And Sheepcrook And Black Dog sports a grinding grungey guitar riff that would put Sabbath to shame. Such ear-bending, neck-prickling volume excesses could be considered album highlights, where the whole team emerges triumphant. Olivia is in excellent voice, of that there's no doubt, and she sounds thoroughly at home in the group setting. She charms as much as she rocks, though; The Gardener strikes a good balance in both vocal and sensitive accompaniment, and Bonny May is nicely turned indeed (the arrangement recalls Fairport's take on Percy's Song), whereas her account of Willie O' Winsbury is characterised by tenderness rather than overt drama - although it may feel a little underplayed. As arguably might the album closer, Lal Waterson's wonderful Bright Phoebus number To Make You Stay (with Colin taking the vocal lead), which feels closer to a Velvet Underground-style tryout (albeit a worthwhile one).
The album's not without its comparatively less successful moments, however; Olivia doesn't (yet) quite possess the sensitivity to reach to the heart of MacColl's First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, and her take on Flash Company feels just a tad auto-pilot, as does the brief morris-on-style instrumental Constant Billy. And Blackleg Miner feels rather too jolly, bordering on perfunctory.
Overall, The Queen Of Hearts is a fine, confident album in the best folk-rock tradition - but it could have been even more stunning, if the promise of around ¾ of its tracks had been maintained and further explored… maybe there's a followup collection in the offing? Hope so!
|Sam Amidon: The Following Mountain||Oddfellow's Casino: Oh, Sealand|
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