Offa Rex, collaboration between two folk acts, get to heart of English folk
If you were to stumble upon “The Queen of Hearts,” the first record from folk group Offa Rex, without knowing anything about it, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s very, very old.
And that’s intentional. The album is nothing but reinterpretations of classic (and in some cases very old) British folk songs.
But, if you like to pay attention to what goes on in the contemporary folk world, you’ll probably recognize the talents that make up Offa Rex, as the group is made up of English folk singer Olivia Chaney and all of the folks that make up The Decemberists.
And the combination of the two is nothing short of a match made in heaven.
Chaney takes the driver’s seat vocally on the record, with The Decemberist’s Colin Meloy taking on the lead vocals of only two of the record’s 11 tracks.
Chaney’s vocals are perfect for the incredibly traditional style of folk that is exemplified on the record. Her voice is smooth, airy, almost hauntingly ethereal. She evokes a longing for a time that has long since passed, a time that none of us alive today have truly lived through.
Offa Rex’s interpretations of English folk tunes, some of which are hundreds of years old, sound as though they come straight from the earth in England. Even more modern folk tunes like “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” are given this treatment, somehow made to feel ancient and ubiquitous. There’s a darkness, a fogginess, about the sounds here.
This is most apparent on the track “The Old Churchyard,” a song in which the speaker discusses longing for the spiritual of those buried in churchyard. Chaney’s voice on this track, backed by a mournful, droning guitar, is enough to bring the listener to tears, as it is easy to hear the longing in her voice. But, the song is hopeful in a uniquely English way, as it closes with a hope that the speaker will see the departed again one day.
But while Offa Rex is dedicated to revitalizing the sounds of English folk, the band does so by incorporating other musical traditions. In the first third of the record, the group incorporates other traditions of folk music, tossing in both Celtic sounds and traditional Americana, like bluegrass, into the mix.
The center third of the album is perhaps the most traditionally English, but the final third (coming after the absolutely haunting rendition of “Willie o’ Winsbury”) begins to incorporate some subtle nods to psychedelia, before absolutely rocking out on “Sheepcrook and Black Dog.” This track, the penultimate, uses hard electric guitars, recalling the sounds of early Black Sabbath records, perhaps to remind listeners of the strong linkage between traditional folk and modern heavy metal.
Offa Rex, by combining the forces of two mainstays in modern folk, have regressed in a way that is truly a delight to behold. The group has dug deep into the past to reveal what about English folk makes it so haunting: It’s a mournful, longing music written by a people hardened by the cold and the rain. When Olivia Chaney’s beautiful voice sounds, it’s easy to picture King Arthur sailing to Avalon, wondering when he’ll return.
Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6119 or on Twitter @PatKernan
Album: ‘The Queen of Hearts’
Artist: Offa Rex
Label: Nonesuch Records
Best Tracks: ‘The Old Churchyard,’ ‘Willie o’ Winsbury’