The stars-and-skies theme of 2022 continues with the 12th studio album by award-winning folk rock legends Oysterband. With Read The Sky, the band emerges from pandemic and lockdown hell with ten new songs, and proof that there’s plenty left in the tank yet, both musically and politically.
Like with Ian Prowse’s One Hand on the Starry Plough, what we have here is a collection of songs that aren’t typically Celtic punk. But while the music might not be similar to the likes of “Granite Years” or “The Road to Santiago”, you can never question the impact that John and the boys have had on the UK folk scene since their ’70s inception. Let’s kick things off with “Born Under the Same Sun”; this opener introduces the album’s slick production values, and discusses the changes that our society has seen in recent years. So is the music relevant? You bet. The song is a fine reminder of the socially aware attitude that the band have often embraced, particularly back in the ’90s, and taken into their recording sessions, which this time were done under COVID conditions.
Next up we have “The Corner of the Room”, track #2. This was released as a single just recently, and in my view it was a good choice. The song is a personal tale of hope and ambition, one sure to be popular among devoted fans of the band. The upbeat mood continues here, and I had to smile at the reference to the Isle of Skye, not too far from my now-home of Glasgow.
Reinventing the fiddle (sort of)
From the album booklet, track 3 “Roll Away” looks like it might be a tune (due to the lack of lyrics). Don’t be fooled – it’s a Back Door Slam cover, written by the hands of Davy Knowles. This is where the fiddle, that archetypal Celtic punk instrument, comes to the fore in a somewhat unorthodox way. Many Celtic punk fans are used to hearing the instrument lead the way, in the form of various jigs and reels (think Dan Booth’s work with Ferocious Dog, for instance). But here, the fiddle takes on a different role. Ian Telfer gives the strings more of a twitch on “Roll Away”, in a way that reminded me of some of Hilary Hahn’s work. Ian is one of three remaining members from Oysterband’s early recording line-up, with lead vocalist John Jones and guitarist Alan Prosser being the other two.
The interesting violin work continues during “Wonders Are Passing”. This reflective, Earth-centred track features a solo in the middle, but what struck me was that the fiddle never truly seems to take off. It sounds more restrained than freeform, though this isn’t a bad thing. In fact it would seem intentional, as if it were done to match the mood of the lyrics. “Fly or Fall” has more of the same – some excellent fiddle runs and a catchy chorus, but again, the fiddle still doesn’t steal the limelight.
The fiddle finally does blossom out towards the end of track #6, “My Son”. The moral behind this track is with great power comes great responsibility, just like in the famous film 😉 In that sense, there’s no better time for Ian to step forward and showcase his skills than during the beautiful outro to this song.
The reeds and the pipes
It might not be your typical Celtic punk album, but Read The Sky doesn’t omit the other familiar folk instruments completely. “Star of the Sea” marks the welcome return of the accordion that fans will know and love from the likes of 1995’s “Put Out the Lights”. “Sea” whisks us away on a brief journey to the far-flung reaches of Hong Kong, and I did wonder if the Dolores in question is the sadly missed Dolores O’Riordan. But the Cranberries frontwoman passed away in London, though she did play in Hong Kong several times.
If “Star of the Sea” didn’t copy “Put Out the Lights” in featuring the uilleann pipes, track #9 “Streams of Innocence” makes up for this. The penultimate track boasts some o’ those piping passages, underpinned by a strong, rolling rhythm. But what about track #7, “Hungry For That Water”? This one is one of the album’s more mystic moments, especially in terms of the lyrical imagery. Add to this some intriguing acoustic soloing that brings to mind Shane MacGowan’s “Lorca’s Novena”, and you’ve got a song whose impact stays with you for longer than you’ll initially realise.
The time is now
The band close the album out in a similar vein to how they opened it; they make another clear socio-political statement with the title track. “The Time Is Now” was the first single released to radio, and fittingly the band performed it during COP26 on BBC Radio 2. The song has a catchy hook to it, underlined by bassist and producer Al Scott’s work on the four-string. John’s lyrics point to the changes we’re seeing near and far in Mother Nature. And the message rings true; in an age where we all need to do something to protect the one world we’ve got, the time really is now. Leave the car at home where possible. Avoid single-use plastic where possible. Sign a petition where possible. We the people have more power than we think on this one. And that’s exactly how it should be.
“The Time Is Now” puts a thoughtful finishing touch to a well-conceived and well-rounded record. When my wife asked me to describe the album as a whole, one comparison I drew was with another group of British folk-rock legends, namely Fairport Convention. We saw them in Oysterband’s native Canterbury just before the pandemic hit, and perhaps the comparison is fitting, as Oysterband have performed at Fairport’s Cropredy festival on a number of occasions. Either way, we are reminded fondly that folk music knows no barriers. Groups young and old[er] are embracing the genre and working hard, year after year, to keep the music and life’s important messages alive.
Right…where can I get it?
Read The Sky is out on Friday 4th March on Running Man Records. One way to pre-order it is HERE. Give the album a spin, and see what thoughts of your own come to mind. The lyrics are included in the booklet, along with a beautiful wee quote by Emily Dickinson, THAT famous reclusive 19th-century poet.
Alternatively, if ya ditched your CD player years ago in favour o’ streaming, then keep an eye on the band’s Spotify profile HERE or Apple Music profile HERE, where you can refresh your memory of the band’s previous material while awaiting the March 4th release date. Lastly, whatever your choice of listening format, make sure you catch the band on their UK tour commencing April 2022.
Tagged: Alan Prosser, Back Door Slam, BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, COP26, Cropredy, Fairport Convention, Ian Telfer, John Jones, Oysterband, Read The Sky, Running Man Records, The Time Is Now, Wonders Are Passing