Twenty-one years after June Tabor and Oysterband collaborated on the classic 'Freedom And Rain' album they've reconvened to record the magnificent 'Ragged Kingdom'. June Tabor & Oysterband's 'Freedom And Rain' remains one of the finest collaborative albums of the past three decades. Bringing together the immense, individual talents of the sublime English folk singer Tabor and the raucous roots rebels Oysterband, it produced something quite new and enduring. When they reunited last year to perform at fRoots Magazine's 30th birthday party at The Roundhouse, they felt the chemistry spark again. And 21 years on, they've made the brand new 'Ragged Kingdom', a brilliant, belated follow-up that mixes the traditional with the contemporary in startling fashion. The trad. 'Bonny Bunch Of Roses' rubs shoulders with PJ Harvey's 'That Was My Veil'; a lush, acoustic version of Joy Division's 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' nestles beside the Scottish trad. song '(When I Was No But) Sweet Sixteen'. Stylistically, the participants have each grown even more in stature in the intervening years. June becoming an eclectic song interpreter, drawing inspiration from many sources, and Oysterband systematically re-exploring their own acoustic folk roots. Together, they bring all of this added artistic weight to the project yet with a deftness of touch. "The spark" says Oysterband's Ian Telfer "is we really feel we do something together which is different from what we do as separate acts. There is something in the combination of June's exquisite dark voice with the supple energy of Oysterband that greatly pleases us. June comes to recording fantastically well prepared: every nuance of meaning and feeling considered in advance and plotted in her mind. Then she stands in the studio and delivers one perfect take, like an act of Chinese calligraphy. Or maybe Chinese cooking: the work is all in the preparation. We deliberately left some of the tracks just a little raw: the current zeitgeist definitely favours sounding 'real', and that's just fine by us." Ragged Kingdom was recorded first at Rockfield Studios near Monmouth and then at Metway Studios, Brighton, with Oysters' regular producer Al Scott, Feb to April 2011. "What unites the material on Ragged Kingdom" Telfer continues "is finding the story in the song, and the exact drama in the story: pop songs are often story songs too, and we tried to find things where the story wasn't banal, which had some shading in them.' Love Will Tear Us Apar't is a great lyric, and so is 'The Dark End Of The Street'." "Glorious" Colin Irwin Mojo *****
In 1990 June Tabor surprised everyone who had her pegged as the archetypal traditional song interpreter by linking up with the feisty Oysterband for the rocky Freedom and Rain album and promotional tour. It worked spectacularly well, enhancing the reputation and, perhaps, broadening the horizons of both parties, yet the experiment was never repeated. Until now, 21 years later, with Ragged Kingdom.
Most reunions or visitations to the past are doomed to failure and - invariably tackled for the wrong reasons - run the risk of tarnishing the reputation of the original. No such cynicism surfaces here as the relish, joy and mutual understanding clearly invested by all concerned contribute to an immaculate performance and presentation that surely surpasses even its celebrated predecessor.
On her second album of 2011 (her solo album, Ashore, is a tour de force in its own right) Tabor sings better than ever, responding to the simmering power of the band behind her to bring real depth and intensity to familiar traditional songs like Bonny Bunch of Roses, Son David and (a particularly fine version of) Fountains Flowing. These appear along with more leftfield choices like PJ Harvey's wonderful That Was My Veil, Shel Silverstein's The Hills of Shiloh and Bob Dylan's Seven Curses.
Tabor's anguished duet with John Jones on Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart has been a showstopper on the rare occasions they've performed it in the past, and it is no less moving here - the Oysterband singer's own empathetic vocal interplay with Tabor throughout the album is another key reason why it works so well. It feels like a genuine union which takes both Tabor and the Oysters beyond their normal realms, with stimulating results for them and us. Later, there's almost a Byrds-like quality to the jangling rhythms driving The Leaves of Life.
From Ray Cooper's raging cello on Seven Curses, to the majestic, ceremonial arrangement of The Dark End of the Street and the eerily humming backing vocals on the otherwise unaccompanied (When I Was No But) Sweet Sixteen, this is an album that constantly scores on almost every level.
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