Best albums of 2017: Offa Rex is the jewel in the crown of the year’s folk releases. CD New Music review by Tim Cumming
I’ve only seen Olivia Chaney perform live a handful of times – once at a Copper Family celebration at Cecil Sharp House, 10,000 Times Adieu, singing unaccompanied with Lisa Knapp and Nancy Wallace, and at the nestcollective’s Unamplifire festival at the Master Shipwright’s Palace in Deptford one chilly St George’s Day. There, she performed solo, at the piano, and her voice and her music was sensational.
She sang from her debut album of original songs, The Longest River, but I wish she’d chosen a few from the album she released this year with Portland, Oregon indie rockers the Decembrists. Working as Offa Rex, Queen of Hearts is an inspired and loving tribute to 1970s English folk rock – Fairport, Albion Band, Steeleye – and the classic repertoire of the post-war folk revival – ranging from Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, through Lal & Mike Waterson’s “To Make You Stay” to beautifully, powerfully sung and performed traditional songs – a delicate “Willie O’ Winsbury”, the headbanging, heavy-metal midriffery of “Sheepcrook and Black Dog”, the mournful regret of “Flash Company”, and the priapic “The Gardener”, with its pungent sexual imagery spread deep amongst the flora and fauna. The Decembrists knocked off some brilliant Morris-On-style dance tunes too, and while you could say this was no groundbreaking project, Offa Rex stood head and shoulders above most of its peers.
Nevertherless, folk music has had another good year, with excellent releases from Leveret, the great English instrumental trio of Sam Sweeney, Rob Harbron and Andy Cutting; from Dublin’s Lankum, whose drone-heavy Between the Earth and the Sky was another major highlight of 2017; also from Ireland, The Gloaming’s Martin Hayes gave us The Blue Room, masterful instrumental chamber folk from his new quartet; while from English singer-songwriter and fiddle player Bella Hardy, Hey Sammy displayed yet more great, catchy and thoughtful tunes.
Casting back to the beginning of the year, Lisa Knapp’s ornate album of charms, Till April Is Dead, was a welcome follow-up to her wonderful 2012 EP, Hunt the Hare. On top of that, Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker recently issued a new EP on Rough Trade, Birds, a liminal, late-night set of stunning songs, including a cover of Dolly Parton’s “Little Sparrow”, which has never sounded so haunted and blue as it does in the voicing given it by Josienne Clarke. A new album is due from the duo next year. Can’t wait for that one to drop [ . . . ] The Arts Desk