Folk

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music Reviews - Tony Hil­lier

The Queen of Hearts Offa Rex None­such/Warner Folk Songs Kronos Quar­tet None­such/Warner It’s no co­in­ci­dence Brit-folk diva Olivia Chaney plays a piv­otal role in a brace of col­lab­o­ra­tive cross-genre re­leases from the eclec­tic None­such la­bel with elite Amer­i­can en­sem­bles. The English singer’s clas­si­cally trained voice forms a per­fect match with the cul­tured strings of the Kronos Quar­tet on two tracks for the San Fran­cisco combo’s lat­est ex­plo­rative en­ter­prise, Folk Songs, a com­pi­la­tion that fea­tures other sirens in­ter­pret­ing stan­dards of the Bri­tish song­book.

Offa Rex’s de­but al­bum has Chaney out front of lauded Port­land in­die-rock­ers the De­cem­berists in a more ad­ven­tur­ous al­liance that makes use of her ear for in­ven­tive phras­ing and sates her pen­chant for ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with­out im­ping­ing on the pris­tine qual­ity of her crys­talline singing. An adroit re­work­ing of tra­di­tional Bri­tish Isles’ reper­toire pro­duced and recorded by Tucker Mar­tine (My Morn­ing Jacket, Neko Case) and the De­cem­berists’ gui­tarist-vo­cal­ist Colin Meloy, though pre­dom­i­nantly ar­ranged by Chaney, The Queen of Hearts im­bues clas­sic folk bal­ladry rocked and jazzed up by the likes of Fair­port Con­ven­tion, Steel­eye Span and Pen­tan­gle in the 1970s with 21st-cen­tury transat­lantic pop. A take of the 19th-cen­tury Northum­ber­land strike an­them The Black­leg Miner has Meloy on lead vo­cals with Chaney pro­vid­ing har­mony backup. The pair duet on a punchy in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Lal Water­son’s To Make You Stay. Else­where, the English singer dom­i­nates. In a ren­di­tion of Sheep­crook and Black Dog that al­ter­nates be­tween grace and grunge, she sounds like an up­dated Maddy Prior. The pu­rity of Chaney’s voice en­sures the po­etic beauty of Ewan MacColl’s de­fin­i­tive 20th­cen­tury love song The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face re­tains its po­tency.

Given that tra­di­tional folk song and Western clas­si­cal mu­sic have been com­pan­ions for cen­turies, it’s no sur­prise to find the renowned Kronos Quar­tet and a guest list of stel­lar singers jelling in Folk Songs. The quar­tet’s shapeshift­ing vi­o­lins, vi­ola and cello af­ford mo­men­tum and an­i­ma­tion to an­cient odes with­out en­croach­ing on well-worn nar­ra­tives. The in­tel­li­gence and sen­si­tiv­ity of the ar­rang­ing is ex­em­pli­fied by Ram­blin’ Boy, in which Chaney sets up the song backed by only a drone be­fore a full strings’ wash leads to thrilling fi­nale spikes. In Chaney’s other track, Mon­tagne, Que Tu Es Haute, which the diva de­liv­ers in fault­less French, strings sup­ply more per­cus­sive ac­com­pa­ni­ment. Up­per-end vi­olin and pizzi­cato pro­vide dra­matic high­light­ing in Natalie Mer­chant’s equally sub­lime ren­di­tions of The Butcher’s Boy and Johnny Has Gone for a Sol­dier. Rhi­an­non Giddens’s fault­less read­ing of Fac­tory Girl is book­ended and punc­tu­ated by lush if lugubri­ous string ar­range­ments that echo the song’s sen­ti­ments. Though a tri­fle repet­i­tive, her Lul­laby is more up­lift­ing.

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