The Owl Service
His Pride. No Spear. No Friend
(Horn Records HORN 5)
available from Bandcamp
With their most traditional album yet, the Owl Service have also delivered their most unexpected. From what some might call their most obvious selection of songs yet (we’ll get to that later), they have delivered… again, their most unexpected. And by blending both with some of their most complex arrangements, they have delivered… you already know, don’t you.
The rudiments. Of the nine songs here, no less than four are derived from the Child Ballads, that most peerless of all British folk collections. Of those four, two were given near-definitive work-outs by Jefferson Hamer and Anais Mitchell on their awards-gobbling Child Ballads album; and two more by Steeleye Span. The remaining five comprise a Robert Burns verse that we remember from The Wicker Man; and album cuts by Anne Briggs, Midwinter, Caedmon and Shirley and Dolly Collins.
In terms of track selection, then, not many surprises, but that is scarcely a fatal flaw. Getting on for 150 years after Professor Child first started scheming his book of ballads, precious few of his selections will not be familiar to some people, and the success of the Hamer/Mitchell album itself speaks only for the enduring popularity of the ballads. Likewise, Anne Briggs is so widely proclaimed a fountainhead of the English folk tradition that covering her music ought to be compulsory, and The Wicker Man soundtrackheads in that direction, too.
Yet that familiarity also breeds a lot of pitfalls, and there’s a lot of people who’ve already tumbled into them. The track listing alone ensures the Owl Service set the bar implausibly high before they’d even recorded a note of music. So don’t judge them on the songs they record; judge them on what they bring to the table once they’re recorded.
It’s not an unfamiliar position for the band. Ranging back across their back catalog, any number of past Owl Service recordings could be said to have walked where angels fear to tread - another version of “Katie Cruel”? “Turpin Hero”? “The Rolling of the Stones”? Even Donovan’s “Season of the Witch,” in the hands of head owl Steven Collins’ Greanvine side project, could have felt too familiar to withstand another mauling.
But it worked. And it continues to do so.
Perhaps there is a false step with the impossibly buoyant rendering of another Steeleye staple, “False Knight on the Road” - if only because Please to See the King already coated the song in way too much honey. But the Child ballad “Willie’s Lady” takes this delightful saga of the world’s worst mother-in-law to electric, eclectic ends, a maddeningly circular riff that doesn’t quit for seven minutes, while the guitar and vocals that lead “The Skater” are everything that an icebound tragedy ought to be.
Time after time after time, Collins (abetted as usual by vocalists Jo Lepine, Diane Collier and Nancy Wallace, plus guests Alison O’Donnell, Laura Hulse Davis and Michael Bappoo) uncovers the twist or tweak, the riff or rhythm, that transforms another version of name that song into a brand new vision. The single keyboard note that is held in eternity beneath Hulse’s plaintive, spartan vocalizing of “Geordie”; the rustic drum and bass clatter that lends an almost folk-funk backing to O’Donnell’s deliciously expressive rendering of “Hugh of Lincoln” (lyrically familiar from Steeleye’s “Little Sir Hugh,” but here learned from Peter and Chris Coe’s infinitely more sinister 1972 vision).
A lovely version of Briggs’s “Living by the Water” conjures all the darkness and solitude that its writer intended, but the instrumentation gives both extra substance; “Salisbury Plain,” a highwayman ballad from Shirley & Dolly Collins’ Love, Death and the Lady, is brief but just as brittle as it ought to be; and Caedmon’s “Sea Song” takes on costuming that bears comparison with the very best of Fotheringay, and not only because the lyric hints ever-so-slightly at “The Sea.”
It’s the percussive shock of “The Widow’s Lament” that opens the album, however, that perhaps highlights it, an excoriating ballad of hard times in auld Scotland that the memory has buried so deep within our love of The Wicker Man that it’s difficult to extract it again. Difficult, but rewarding. Alongside Us and Them’s similarly peerless visit to the same filmic songbook, the Owl Service remind us just how exquisitely that soundtrack shaped what we now refer to as British traditional music - and how much scope it allowed for subsequent reshaping.
The first Owl Service album in some five years, since The View from a Hill, had a lot to live up to - not only the band’s sainted status in modern folk circles, but also the alacrity with which their influence and attitudes have been taken up by a wealth of other performers; and, on top of that, Collins’s much quoted insistence that “the album will contain mostly traditional material, but the sound will be far from traditional. It'll be a folk album in lyrical content only, not in sound.”
Well, guess what? Mission accomplished.