Not content with having delivered one of the year’s finest albums in the magnificent Ashore [review and interview here and here], June Tabor now returns with her second record of 2011, re-teaming with Oysterband for a highly enjoyable (and long-anticipated) sequel to their 1990 collaboration album Freedom and Rain. Placing Tabor’s unique voice - mostly associated with stark, or indeed a cappella musical settings - in the context of Oysterband’s lively, brawny brand of folk-rock, Freedom and Rain expanded the musical horizons of both singer and band, offering covers of songs by artists as diverse as Billy Bragg, The Velvet Underground, Shane McGowan and Richard Thompson alongside a smattering of traditional material.
Twenty-one years on, the set-up remains much the same on Ragged Kingdom, although the ratio of old-to-new material is more balanced here, the new album’s twelve tracks comprising seven traditional numbers and five contemporary songs, seamlessly sequenced. Benefiting from the many years of musical exploration undertaken individually by Tabor and the Oysters, the new record also boasts a wider tonal range than its predecessor, as well as a fuller, richer, more organic sound; play Freedom and Rain straight after listening to this and the older album sounds just a tad “tinny” by comparison.
Proceedings open in fine style with a rollicking take on “Bonny Bunch of Roses,” the venerable broadside that presents an imagined conversation between Napoleon’s second wife, the Empress Marie Louise, and their war-mongering young son. The band settle into an imperturbable gait and Tabor tears into the lyrics with gusto, ensuring that the song’s cautionary vision of “Moscow … a-blazing” is fully communicated to the listener. Her awesome dramatic power is put to equally good use on a brooding, full-blooded version of The Wicker Man-evoking Somerset carol “Judas (Was A Red-Headed Man),” with sublime fiddle work from Ian Telfer and Alan Prosser, while other highlights on the trad. side include fresh, spirited interpretations of “Son David” (another mother/son duologue), “If My Love Loves Me,” and “Fountains Flowing.”
“We have long been fascinated by the mystery, magic and mayhem in traditional song,” note Tabor and the band in the liner notes. “But the impulse to tell strange stories never goes away.” War and the travails of love remain two of the primary thematic concerns on Ragged Kingdom and provide a bridge from the oldest to the newest tracks. The taut take on PJ Harvey’s and John Parish’s “That Was My Veil” packs a fiercer punch than the muted original, and Tabor’s emphatic delivery of the final “Lies!” is prodigious. As on Freedom and Rain the band don’t swamp Tabor’s genius for nuance when at their noisiest, except perhaps on the slightly clunky version of Bob Dylan’s “Seven Curses” that’s included here, a reading that somehow fails to really tap in to the song’s tragic narrative.
It’s ultimately the album’s quieter moments that resonate most profoundly, though. Tabor’s and John Jones’s gloriously dolorous duet cover of Joy Division’s immortal “Love Will Tear Us Apart” has been a highlight of their live shows for several years now, and it fully retains its impact on record, while Shel Silverstein’s and Jim Friedman’s Civil War saga “The Hills of Shiloh” gets a marvellously spare and spectral acoustic guitar-led treatment that’s reminiscent of some of Tabor’s work with Martin Simpson.
And the a cappella “(When I Was No But) Sweet Sixteen” is the most haunting thing here - a moving tale from the perspective of a young mother who warns against submitting to the desires of “the plough-boys in the gloaming.” Chips Moman's and Dan Penn’s illicit-lovers staple “The Dark End of the Street” may seem a lightweight choice of finale by comparison, but Tabor and Jones offer an elegant, understated reading that tips its hat to Richard and Linda Thompson’s version of the song while also carving out its own distinctive niche.
In sum, Ragged Kingdom is a most welcome addition to both Tabor and Oysterband’s catalogues, a stirring offering that succeeds in bringing “strange stories,” old and new alike, to vivid, compelling life.
Ragged Kingdom is released on 19th September, through Topic. Tabor and the band are undertaking an extensive tour in support of the album, and I’ll be reviewing their show at the Queen Elizabeth Hall tomorrow night. Further details on tour dates and venues here.
Reviewed for Wears the Trousers.
Reviewed for Wears the Trousers.