Before I start, I should probably confess that I’ve always loved folk music. Growing up with one foot in America and one foot in Ireland, folk music helped me connect with what I felt were my roots. My culture. My people. The songs and artists I grew up with spoke to an older time, when lessons were passed down orally, when work was done by hand, and songs were sung to make it go a little faster. As I grew up, I found artists who mixed those old ballads and stories with a more mainstream, rock’n’roll sort of sound. It makes sense, then, that in Offa Rex’s Queen of Hearts — the latest project from Olivia Chaney and the Decemberists — I would find something enchantingly familiar.
This is a proper folk album, with covers from start to finish, so it’s true to say that Queen of Hearts spans the gamut of English folk music. There are Child ballads and coal miner’s songs here, laments for lost loves and for lost innocence. The overriding theme, though, as with so many traditional songs, is the transience of life. From the opening harpsichord drone of the title track, there is a mournful, almost oppressed feeling in these songs. Death comes swift to the blackleg miner, and later an unknown narrator longs to lie down in the old churchyard. Though the mood is broken by the occasional reel, the levity feels incongruous with the main themes, like a carnival intersecting a funeral.
Combining the old songs with modern styles has long been the fashion for folk musicians. Some have found more success than others, but Offa Rex mostly manage to pull it off. The electric guitar and the rhythm section remind me of Fairport Convention’s innovations, and the harpsichord — never too far from use — sounds like something the Bothy Band made good use of. The album’s real glue, however, is in Chaney’s haunting, mournful vocals, which bring new life to these old songs. Meloy’s more nasally voice is used sparingly but powerfully, a compromise between those who like and dislike that aspect of the Decemberists.
There is a risk though, when recording folk standards in the modern age. Not only can it invite negative comparisons with versions folk-purists consider definitive, but it seems to require some justification. We must ask, when a hundred different versions are available online, why we need to hear a new take. Do we care if the king hangs Willy O’Winsbury or lets him live? How applicable are the problems of the old world’ Perhaps with music, culture and accepted norms changing so rapidly, there is no need for these old songs. But without a reminder of the past, the present would seem wholly immutable. Maybe by seeing how far we’ve come — musically, culturally, and technologically — we can kindle hope that the seemingly-intractable problems of our age can be dealt with somehow.
This isn’t exactly an album to bring out at parties, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s gloomy and soulful, but also beautiful. Those who are familiar with these old standards will find interesting, beautiful versions of songs like old friends. Those who are unfamiliar with these tracks will have the joy both of hearing these songs for the first time, and of researching the older version to compare with the new. On a slow and rainy Sunday, the old world will seem to live again in the music that has been passed down to us. — CHRISTOPHER MALENEY