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.