(All Album Reviews by Epilepticgibbon)
Last year (2006) The Owl Service wowed many with their debut EP Wake The Vaulted Echo. At the time I questioned whether it was an example of alternative folk, folk noir, prog folk, or acid folk, but eventually stopped worrying about that and just settled down to enjoy it. For me personally the EP was a bit short, only just getting into its stride as it neared its end, so I was interested in hearing what a full album would sound like.
Well, now we have that full album and multi-instrumentalist Steven Collins, the ringleader of this loose collective claims that he set out to make the most exciting English folk album since Liege and Lief. He’s set himself a high standard and perhaps not surprisingly falls a little short, but there’s no doubting his ambition, enthusiasm and talent.
There were a few key things I noted about this album right from the start. First off, elements of Wake The Vaulted Echo were quite dark and moody, fitting in nicely with what some people have termed folk noir. By contrast A Garland of Song is generally not folk noir, but much more sunny and jolly. That’s not to say that there’s no downbeat content or anything with a melancholic theme to it, but for the most part it’s a much more upbeat album, a celebration of English folk songs and of life itself.
The second thing I noted is the apparent influence of the band Trees on this album. Trees were a British folk rock band that existed between 1969 and 1972 and although they were not very commercially successful at the time they have since come to be very highly regarded by those in the know. Although their music was itself influenced by Fairport Convention, it also has its own distinctive sound that consists of a generally heavier rock edge, as well as being much more psychedelic. And I think it’s fair to say that Trees are the single biggest influence on this album, even more so than the aforementioned Fairport Convention.
Perhaps the strongest link is with Steven’s use of electric guitar throughout much of this album, which makes me think very much of Barry Clarke’s work on the two Trees albums (you can hear this on the tracks “Turpin Hero”, “Katie Cruel”, and “Child Ballad No. 219 (The Gardener Child)”, for example). But I think it’s also rather evident in many of the arrangements, which often remind me less of traditional English folk music and more of American West Coast psychedelic folk rock excursions. That’s not to say that A Garland of Song has no Englishness to it, any more than that could be said of the two Trees albums, but little touches here and there (such as the use of banjo on “The North Country Girl”) keep suggesting a transatlantic connection.
Another similarity with Trees is that the material on A Garland of Song is divided between versions of traditional folk songs and murder ballads, such as the aforementioned “Turpin Hero” and “Oxford City (or The Jealous Lover)”, and original compositions, such as the lively, jaunty opener and title track “A Garland of Song (Folk Revival)”, and the more ethereal instrumental “The Dorset Hanging Oak”. It’s this latter track that takes me back to the darker and more experimental numbers off “Wake The Vaulted Echo”, so if you liked that side of the band then never fear because it’s still here, though you’ll find it nestled amongst more jolly material, like the wassailing song “Apple Tree Man” (if you didn’t know, wassailing refers to an English tradition of singing the health of trees, in the hope that they might produce a good harvest).
One element that distinguishes this album from the work of Trees is that there is no reliance on a single female vocalist. Most of the lead vocals do come from women and Steven has collected together a very fine collection of vocalists to work with, as evidenced, for example, by Nancy Wallace’s sterling work on “Turpin Hero” and Diana Collier who sings very sweetly on two of my favourites from the album, “Katie Cruel”, and “Child Ballad No. 219 (The Gardener Child)”. However, I would have liked to have heard Pamela Wyn-Shannon a bit higher up in the mix on the otherwise excellent “The North Country Maid” – I found I could barely hear her and although this makes for an interesting effect I”m not sure it really benefits the song.
The vocalists are supported by some fine musicianship throughout, mostly from Steven himself, though there are important contributions from Hermoine Swinford (harp on “Child Ballad No. 45 (The Rolling of the Stones)”, the aforementioned Pamela Wyn-Shannon who plays the aforementioned banjo on “The North Country Maid”, and Martyn Kember-Smith (fiddle on “Apple Tree Man”).
Overall it would be unfair to criticise A Garland of Song for not being the most exciting English folk album since Liege and Lief, particularly when it’s much closer in style and spirit to the two Trees albums The Garden of Jane Delawney and On the Shore. If you like those albums then you should be very excited by this release, but even if you’re not familiar with Trees then there’s much on offer here to appeal to lovers of well-crafted psychedelic folk rock. The album can currently be downloaded from Woven Wheat Whispers and will be reissued on vinyl and CD by Southern Records in the early part of 2008.
Best tracks: “A Garland of Song (Folk Revival)”, “Turpin Hero”, “The Dorset Hanging Oak”, “Child Ballad No. 219 (The Gardener Child)”, “Corn Dollies”.