June Tabor and the Oyster Band – Freedom and Rain
Oysterband and June Tabor are making a new album together, the follow-up to their 1990 collaboration Freedom and Rain. The new album will be called Ragged Kingdom and is released later this month. Given that Freedom and Rain was probably the last great English folk rock album, I’m not sure how this news passed me by for so long. I feel like people ought to be shouting from the rooftops. Instead, a throwaway line on their website was the only sign of it for months, and even now there seems a relative lack of buildup for an album that seems, to me at least, to be the most interesting thing to have happened on the English folk scene in ages.
In anticipation, it seemed appropriate to post a few thoughts on their first album together for anyone who hasn’t heard it already. So, forget for a moment the imminent return of this collaboration, find your copy of Freedom and Rain and consider with me just why it holds a place in the hearts of so many of us, 21 years on.
The executive summary runs something like this: in one corner, you have England’s finest living interpreter of traditional song. In the other, a young, lean, hungry and well-drilled folk-rock band. Together, they distil the essence of the nation’s folk-rock heritage, throw in a few choice covers and produce a modern classic.
Freedom and Rain sits in an interesting point in both their careers. Tabor is established, respected but yet to record some of her best-known works (including her harrowing versions of Eric Bogle’s First War laments And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda and No Man’s Land, two recordings that presented her to new audiences). Oysterband are young, but evolving. They are still The Oyster Band, yet to drop the definite article and the gap, and yet to release the definitive, revisionist 1994 release Trawler and thereby imprint on the public imagination new versions of some of their best-loved material.
Into this unknown territory, our collaborators stepped, forging new musical partnerships and creating something new, unique and perhaps a little strange. A cocktail of traditional songs and contemporary covers, a rock album with uncommon musical and emotional depth.
The best of the traditional material is the just-plain-brutal Susie Clelland (Child number 65 for all you ballad geeks out there), in which the protagonist is burned at the stake for marrying an Englishman, is subject to a fascinating arrangement; Tabor leaves out many of the repeated lines, leaving stark gaps and a skeletal remainder. Dives and Lazarus, meanwhile, is transformed by a mutated, brass-centric arrangement with echos of two-tone and ska. Time and time again, the listener says “This shouldn’t work…but it does.”
As well as their mutual stock-in-trade trad songs, the collaboration tackles some great contemporary writing. It’s as if they sat down and compiled a shortlist of great songwriters of their generation and then hand-picked a great song from each of them: Billy Bragg, Lou Reed, Richard Thompson, John Tams.
Tabor’s dry delivery makes “Valentines Day Is Over” a strange but compelling listen; lines that Bragg would deliver with a snarling, sardonic tone are rendered in crisp, stark and thus unnerving. Tabor’s suggestion that the antagonist might find his things “all stacked out on the landing” isn’t funny but more a thinly veiled threat, it is delivered with such menace!
Fans of the Oysterband were already aware of their potential to take contemporary/pop/rock (pick your awkward adjective) songs and charge them with a new energy; their melodeon-driven New Order cover (a phrase I doubt anyone had considered uttering until it actually happened) “Love Vigilantes” on 1989’s Ride seems so natural, it is only a matter of time before some squeezebox-wielding fellow performs it as a traditional ballad in his local folk club, completely unaware that it started life as a somewhat turgid, prickly manifestation of a Manchester rock band’s awkward transition into their second coming.
It comes then as little surprise that this collaboration produces some provocative, controversial, challenging cover versions. “Night Comes In” is heresy to Richard Thompson fans. They take one of his darkest, deepest and slowest songs and turn it into a thrash, driving along like Tabor has suddenly decided she likes going to post-punk club nights.
Much as the songs are brilliant, the band don’t rest on those borrowed laurels. Perhaps the best song on the album is one of the least “famous”, at least amongst their mutual audience: the opener, Si Kahn’s Mississippi Summer, the last line of which gives the album its title: “Lord send us freedom and rain.” It features an astonishing coupling of bass (cello?) and drums that ticks along in a metallic, percussive manner that has to be heard to be appreciated. Convenient, then, that you have the opportunity to do so below…
Freedom and Rain echoes down the memories of my early childhood, like the albums in its DNA: Rise Up Like The Sun, Alright Jack, Liege and Lief. The heritage of English folk rock runs deep through Freedom and Rain; John Tams’ Pain or Paradise is a nod to his Rise Up Like The Sun lineup of The Albion Band, whilst Night Comes In is classic Richard-and-Linda-era RT. Tams and Thompson are both fans of a brass section, too.
Time and time again the listener is left wondering how a song that seems to be barrelling along, melodeon chugging, horn section driving it at a fair pace, can also be delivering such an emotional payload. That is the dichotomy at the heart of Freedom and Rain and the reason the pairing is so successful.
As Robin Denselow wrote in the Guardian recently, in the intervening years Tabor’s arrangements have gotten more precise and the Oysterband’s more haphazard; one can only hazard a guess at what this might mean for their new work, but I for one can hardly wait.