Oysterband, 25 (Running Man Records, 2003)

25 years of the Oysterband. Can it be that long? Well, it must be, and it seems that it is. This EP of four new tracks and three previously unreleased tracks didn't grab me at first, perhaps because the boys didn't include any incendiary crowd pleasers, like "Blood Wedding" or "Granite Years." But I'd listen to John Jones sing opera, and after several turns in the boom box, I came to see that this might be a release as much for them -- the band -- as for "us" the fans. This EP shows the Oysterband in a thoughtful, yet defiant, mood; it is a release that draws from the bedrock of Anglo-trad, reforged as something uniquely "oyster" as we've come to know it. It's also a mature work in the best sense of the word -- there is depth here that is difficult to achieve until you've lived awhile, yet intimately, emphatically involved in life.

"Noah and the Raven" draws on the biblical themes woven through so much traditional Anglo/Irish/North American folk music to revile those pursuing the wars over oil in the Middle East, when the Raven brings the a skull back to Noah, beached on Mount Ararat. "Oil in the water, leaking like a wound," and "there are no civilians anymore," proclaims the song, using a story common to all three Middle East religions to indict the perpetrators of war and environmental destruction -- a deft transformation of some powerful imagery. "Factory Girl" draws on the tradition of songs glorifying the virtues of simple working folk. Sung with June Tabor, it is a love song that hearkens back to the songs of the industrial revolution. "Boy in the Window" is classic Oysters, hinting at the darkness lying in the heart and possibly the actions of a lonely, alienated boy who has been rejected -- but whose "tears run down the window pane?" The arrangements -- the chorus is almost a grunting sound, and hints at some of the dark cultural threads woven around the situation.

The theme of loneliness and desperation is revisted in "Up on the Bridge," when an older, more mature singer proclaims "I shall not be lonely," a song that can only be described as an anthem, mining familiar territory to oyster fans -- recalling the struggles of the immigrant looking back on life seemingly determined to persevere, yet the song's title hints at suicide. What act will rescue the singer from this loneliness? "Road to Nowhere" has been surrounded with an Irish style chorus provided by James O'Grady's uilleann piping; it's a nice romp. "The Government Gets In" is almost reminiscent of some of the songs from Deserters, a diatribe against conventional politics, because whoever you voted for... well you know the rest. The final song on the album is a subdued offering from Alan Prosser, detailing the singer's "Climb Back to Heaven" after a colossal error in the relationship department. Like some of Prosser's other offerings, it is sweet without being sappy -- just a man and a guitar.

25 will appeal to most Oyster fans and whet their appetites until the next full length album emerges. It finds the band in fine form, still out there banging on the doors of the powerful, ready to reweave the cultural fabric by pulling some threads, knotting others, and singing their hearts out.

[Kim Bates]