Oysterband – Read The Sky: Album Review

Oysterband break their 8-year drought of wholly new material with a joyous deluge.

Release date: 4th March 2022

Label: Running Man

Format: CD / digital

Can you honestly say you saw this coming? As an inveterate follower of the band, I had sort of forgotten as to any idea of new songs, the boys bouncing along more than gamely enough with the myriad meanders to be made about the already existent material, of which there’s a vast wealth. It seems scarcely possible that the last all-new album was back in 2014, despite which they seem to have been, in recent years, going from strength to strength, with that album, Diamonds On The Water making actually little inroad into their live performances.

Bear in mind they have had a lot happening, a lot between 40-year anniversary tours, reprising the glorious liaisons with June Tabor, and conducting the 3 Oysters 3 song’n’chat shows, with the odd all-star reunion gig thrown in for good measure. All this alongside managing to bridge the loss of Chopper in 2013, needing both Al Scott, otherwise their producer, and Adrian Oxaal, also the James guitarist, to replace him, so as to accommodate both his bass and cello duties. Similarly, a bewildering array of drummers were taking turns to fill that drum seat , when Dil Davies moved on, with Bellowhead man Pete Flood holding the position as a keepsafe ahead of now, Sean Randle. Having the shock of John Jones cancer diagnosis can have scarcely helped, something hopefully now behind him. But, and I am guessing, in the same way as some other “mature” bands, let’s say the Stranglers and Del Amitri as two other examples, that the experience and effect of lockdown and the pandemic enforced a period of reflection and reformulation, igniting the inspirational sparks to produce late-blooming pearls from all the accumulated grit.

But is it any good? Hell, yeah, is the only response possible, way better than any expectations, making me shameful I could expect anything less. Nothing left to prove, seasoned road warriors with their 10,000 hours and some, on this form I can’t see any end in sight. The themes are those you would expect and those that you would want; never shy to wear their left-skewed libertarianisms lightly, there is a stronger emergent green agenda, befitting the needs of the planet. Plus it is an attractive package, thought clearly having gone into the presentation: a gatefold CD with attractive artwork by Martin Rowsell, based on a photo by Zoltan Tasi; the hull of a boat, maybe an ark, sits high and dry under a star-filled sky. Whether the slight pinky-orange hue is by night or by morning I will leave for others to gauge. A booklet with all the lyrics carries a similar pictorial mix of storms and rainbows. The inside of the cover has a widescreen live shot of the band, at, I’m guessing, one of their spiritual homes, the Shrewsbury Folk Festival, where John James is a patron.

The show gets off to a kickstart with the anthemic Born Under the Same Sun, with a chiming unison riff greeting the familiar tones of Jones. “Born under the same sun; do we stay or do we run?“, familiar lyrical territory. With a steady undercurrent from Randle and Scott, it is the jangle of the massed chorale of mandolin and guitars that stands out, cello and fiddle gliding through the gaps. That same sense of rhythmic riffing sweeps into The Corner Of The Room, one of those effortless carousing songs, hooleys of drinking and dancing, the sort the band can write in their sleep. And that others fail so badly in trying to reproduce. I’m grinning already, impatient for the spring into summer shows. Prosser, or is it Oxaal, plays some cracking electric lead as the song rounds out.

The more acoustic whimsy of Roll Away next rolls in, a song written by Davy Knowles. In a quite different spin on it than offered by his own band, Back Door Slam, the Oysters find the hidden shanty within, with a chorus I can see the crowd picking up instantaneously. If any song is waiting in the wings to take the place of London City, perennial set closer these past several years, this may be it. Scott’s mandolin is again prominent in the mix, jousting with IanTelfer’s mercurial bow work, the cello then adding extra weight. This current lineup really pitches the best of the various accents this band has embraced over the years.

Wonders Are Passing is another well-visited and well-constructed Oyster trope, the chug of the string section, Jones plaintively extolling the sense of loss, in plain sight and in front of our eyes. Alan Prosser, his head no doubt still forever bobbing, adds some assured acoustic guitar accompaniment to the rest of the ensemble. A delightful Oxaal helmed middle eight of almost Eastern strings carries the song into a successful conclusion, the vocals becoming a chorale, ahead the warning “good night.” A swift dry-mouthed gulp to digest that thought before Fly Or Fall has some further glorious jangle, with some high tumbling bass, or, possibly, plucked cello. The chorus, another song that seems to be celebrating the conviviality of nights out, it has an ominous subtext of warning: “who knows if we fly or if we fall?”

My Son is a song that belies the years of absorbing the folk tradition that has gone into the four decades and counting of this band. In the mould of Fiddle Or A Gun, if not in the melodic sense, it is another song of caution, a message to the future, and to the better wisdom of the pen over the sword. Or gun. With most of the songs emerging from one or several of the core trio, Jones, Prosser and Telfer, this is a co-write with Scott, who is proving himself to be a key ingredient of this century’s Oysterband. A change in direction comes then as a slight surprise, as Prosser takes up the vocal lead, adding piano, organ and maybe much else of the instrumentation for his, and Telfer’s, Hungry For That Water. A minor key lament, his thinner vocal is the correct foil for this palate-cleansing treat, similar to quite nothing else in their canon.

Star Of The Sea suddenly reminds you of what you have been missing hitherto, John Jones only belatedly strapping on his melodeon. A dreamy story tale, redolent of the whimsy of Finisterre, voice, melodeon and acoustic guitar almost all there is to it, a plea to “save this sailor from the sea“. Lovely. Streams of Innocence then adds an almost African flavour, the chug of melodeon straight from Paul Simon’s Graceland. (Yes, he’s kept it on, for all those old morris men, like me, who still crave that hit of squeeze.) Telfer’s Middle Eastern fiddle sits above that atmosphere, seeming still somehow entirely appropriate.

Sadly, and all too swiftly, it is time to close proceedings, the Beatle-esque cellos of The Time Is Now propelling this further call to action. As the track builds, with flourishes of psychedelic guitar, I am finding hints of XTC mashed up with the Byrds. At a minute under 40, this assured set shows indeed that the Oysterband’s time is, assuredly, still now. They’ve never been away, but welcome back!

Here’s the proof: The Time Is Now!

Oysterband is on touring the UK, from April through May. For the dates check out their website.

Oysterband online: Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

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