For all the freak folkies, shoegazers and old school wannabes inhabiting today’s acoustic environs, essential English music, replete with all the traditional trappings, doesn’t attract much notice these days. The momentary attention accorded Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Steeleye Span, Albion Dance Band and the like back in the day hasn’t really resonated or provided the momentum needed to sustain a lingering trend.
Credit British singer Olivia Chaney’s new outfit Offa Rex, then, for being so bold as to tap into a similar style. A follow up to Chaney’s 2015 solo bow, The Longest River, its sounds are of a decidedly vintage variety. Hopefully, though, obscurity won’t be in the offing. With Colin Meloy and the Decemberists lending support, and veteran producer Tucker Martine (Modest Mouse, My Morning Jacket, Neko Case) behind the boards for their first collaborative effort The Queen of Hearts, a contemporary connection is still assured. Likewise, the inclusion of the evergreen ballad “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” originally penned by one of Britain’s folk forebears, Ewan MacColl, it also offers a modest hint of familiar fare.
For her part, Chaney’s dulcet tones and serendipitous delivery mostly recall the latter day finesse of Joan Shelley and the classic conceits of Vashti Bunyan, while offering little concession to modern accoutrements or hipster trappings. Accorded high honors as an emerging folk artist by the BBC, she remains true to her muse without regard to any undue additives.
The harmonium drone accompanying “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” takes it so far from Roberta Flack’s hit recording as to make it practically unrecognizable. The vintage songs—“Blackleg Miner,” “Willy O’Winsbury,” “Flash Company” and “The Old Churchyard” among them—are as earnest and exquisite as anything the late Sandy Denny, Jacqui McShee or Maddy Prior would have sung whilst traipsing through the English countryside. Those delicate designs pervade, and only the jaunty instrumental medley “Constant Billy/I’ll Go Enlist” and the unexpected buzz-saw delivery in parts of “Sheepcrook and Black Dog” intrude on the tender accompaniments.
Music so clear and quaint seems an anachronism in a world where glitz and grooves are used to woo the masses. Subtlety is practically extinct. As a result, The Queen of Hearts demands a patient listen and a willing ear. Happily, this clear appreciation for folk nobility reaps its rewards.