Offa Rex The Queen of Hearts

[Nonesuch; 2017]

Styles: folk
Others: Fairport Convention, Anne Briggs, Ewan MacColl

As I walked out one morn in May, I came to a triple-forking road. The first path led to the sooty mouth of mines and to smoke-belching factories; the second to a clearing where a bloodied knife rested in the flattened grass; the third to a field of flowers lit by the rays of afternoon and to the golden hayrick.

It’s as much as to say, what can a new performer bring to folk standards? Will they lean to the picketline struggle, to the murderous gothic, or to the sweetheart lovelorn or overjoyed in reunion? The Child Ballads from which much of Offa Rex’s The Queen of Hearts is drawn are monikered after 19th-century collector Frances James Child, but would be better titled Adult Ballads (without a whiff of the adult contemporary acoustic guitar musings that often pass for “folk”).

Offa Rex, themselves named for an Anglo-Saxon ruler in a Britain of warring kingdoms, have chosen the latter two of this triple nosegay. Darkness is only one element of their chiaroscuro — except inasmuch as these songs are inherently eerie. And all the more so in the present day, when we receive a folk music originally intended for the voice-in-person through a mediumship digital, electric and reproduced. As David Toop has it, recorded sound itself is a haunting.

There’s another layer to this archeology of silt and sediment. Offa Rex (who are The Decemberists performing with English singer Olivia Chaney) draw deeply on the British folk rock of the 1960s and 70s, particularly the holy trinity of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, and Pentangle. These musicians were always already nostalgics, transforming traditional folk in their “anthems in (electric) Eden,” looking back to a half-mythical pre-modern age where folk traditions were vital rather than fast-disappearing, before industrialization transformed the landscape of farmer, shepherd, soldier, and lover.

We are, then, at a second remove, a second meta-stasis (or a third, if we include that 19th-century folk revival), from origins, but on The Queen of Hearts, there is no irony, no sonic timeplay. For a true folk hauntology, look instead to the glitchy 1970s experiments of Ghost Box, the psychogeographics of Solarference and Forest Swords, or John Barleycorn Reborn.

That is no criticism of Offa Rex, though, for the traditions of rural Britain are wyrd enough in and of themselves. And they form part of a reflowering of interest in the tradition — evidenced in the work of younger British musicians such as Sam Lee, Fay Hield, and Rachel Newtown, and in Shirley Collins’s magisterial 2016 return to voice.

There is something shimmering, cold, and tender in these songs. There are also moments of rock vigor that are the flip side to folk’s gentleness (never gentility), notably on the muscle-and-sinew of “Blackleg Miner” with its tale of the despised worker ringing all-too-familiar to contemporary ears, and on “Sheepcrook and Black Dog.” Sonically there’s not overmuch resemblance here to the literary indie pop of The Decemberists, but they’ve obviously always had a penchant for history, for folk instrumentation, and for a revenge ballad. But the traditional melodies cut to the quick, unmatchably. Even Colin Meloy’s voice sounds different here, with less of the plaintiveness beloved of male indie singers (perhaps best exemplified by Ben Gibbard) and more immediacy.

A further aspect of what Rob Young calls “the organic transmission of an ever-changing same” is found in the trans-Atlantic union of The Decemberists with Chaney. There’s something here of the blending of English with American folk traditions that took place in areas like the Appalachians, or in Collins and Alan Lomax’s storied American folk collecting expeditions in the late 1950s. America has its own lineage interpreting this music, reframing the English tales to an American idiom, represented by legends such as Jean Ritchie. But the harpsichord and guitars that predominate on Queen of Hearts owe more to the English folk revival. Offa Rex now join American artists such as the Wainwright Sisters, Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer, and Seaven Teares in drinking deep from this well and pouring its waters in lands strange to their birthing — whether to heal or to poison.

Sung in America, though, there is always the haunting of the colonial, the overwriting of indigeneity. What can the Anglo folk tradition be to the land? Where is home? Offa was an Anglo-Saxon king, before the colonization by Normans still lamented in literature by English antiglobalists such as Paul Kingsnorth (whether this is conservative parochialism or woke anticolonialism is best decided by you yourself, gentle reader). Some musicians — neofolk, I’m looking at you — have been all too eager to connect folk traditions to racism. Which is not to tar Offa Rex with this brush (that devaluing of blackness even in metaphor, written into the language itself). But that said, the question is not addressed here, as it is in the “technofolk” of an artist like Huerco S., and those living “ghosts” need to be brought into existence in reflection, however fleeting. They can’t go unsaid.

Gender, too, lingers spectral at the edges of tradition — left unchallenged here in the rape-to-happy-ending of “Bonny May,” but interrogated in Offa Rex’s gorgeous rendition of “Willie o’ Winsbury,” in which, rare in the canon, gender reversal is considered and forbidden love rewarded:

“It is no wonder,’ said the King
‘That my daughter’s heart you did win
If I was a woman as I am a man
Your bedfellow I should have been”

A third and final (holy) spirit in our uncanny trinity: in England, writes Young, folk is also haunted by the Industrial Revolution and the First World War, moments at which all that is solid is smashed into smithereens, to be reassembled in Taylorist technologies of dehumanization. Shropshire lads hung suspended between two eras:

Ah, spring was sent for lass and lad,
‘Tis now the blood runs gold,
And man and maid had best be glad
Before the world is old.
What flowers to-day may flower to-morrow,
But never as good as new…

But the world is so old already! And so marked and tracked, without innocence, full of echoes that no longer have a source.

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