Oysterband, Here I Stand (Omnium, 1999)  

I have to confess right up front that the Oysters, (as they are familiarly known), are one of the few bands whose releases I anticipate with an eagerness usually reserved for unopened birthday presents, dreams such as winning the lottery, being able to quit my day job, and all right -- being able to attend a live Oysterband concert. Unfortunately, they don't seem to want to play my part of the world, so I'd better win that lottery too while I'm dreaming, so I can go see them where they do play, i.e., it's one of those high-magnitude experiences for me. So if you're expecting a negative review, you'll not find one here.

Their latest album Here I Stand has a more pop-oriented feel than much of their earlier work, which in general was angrier, more overtly political, and perhaps even more folk-oriented than the present work. It's also more introspective in nature, with more songs focusing on personal relationships and their ramifications.

Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily, although it did mean adjusting my expectations when I first listened to it. This is one of those albums that doesn't give up all its secrets in the first few listenings -- it certainly didn't for me. On the other hand, albums like that tend to have more "staying power" in my CD player.

The opening track "On The Edge" builds a nice tension in its opening with the progressive addition of a mandolin and a Beatlesque (almost Sgt-Pepperish) cello line before the full band kicks in. Once it does, it's a fine album opener. They quote one of their earlier works in the line "The world turned upside down," which ends one of the verses. The stuttering, military-crisp drum work is, by the way, exceptional, but then I've always been an admirer of the Oysters' drummer, Lee.

Next up, "This Is The Voice," where a verse of gorgeous a capella harmonies lead into a full band treatment. There's a nice open sound to this track, although as the song progresses, more and more instruments and voices fill the track. The lyric "shout out loud" is echoed in the song by the vocalist doing exactly that. The members of Chumbawamba guest on the vocals, trumpet and "shouting" on this one, by the way. (The Oysterband provided backing instrumentals on "Farewell to the Crown," a biting attack by Chumbawamba on the English royal family that appears on the Chumbawamba EP Tubthumping.)

More about Chumbawamba can be found at this Web site.

A harder sound more reminiscent of the earlier Oysters' work opens "In Your Eyes," a powerful paen to the strong, magical attraction between two people. One of my favorite lines from their lyrics on this album appears on this track, "When God is on the bodhran, the atoms want to dance." One of the best things about the Oysters is that they not only play and sing great music, but most often their lyrics are intelligent and at times quite poetic. It's hard to ask for anything more!

Living in one's personal dream world is what "Street of Dreams" is all about. This song features some fine harmony by Rowan Godel. Musically, Lee's crisp drumming again stands out.

The song "Ways of Holding On" has a hypnotic middle-Eastern drumbeat and minor-key tonality, and yet, has at the same time, a quasi-psychedelic feel. John Jones' lead vocal is recorded through what sounds like a Vocoder, the effect of which is to make him sound as if he's at the opposite end of a megaphone. Harmonies are provided by Yulia Kuzsta. The lyrics offer hope for the future even when the current world seems dark and forbidding.

Loving and losing -- such an essential part of the human condition -- are explored in "A Time Of Her Own." John Jones' pensive vocals and largely acoustic-guitar-oriented musical accompaniment reflect the sadness inherent in such an experience.

The most pop-oriented track on the album is "After Rain." Unusually, the lyrics are a bit on the mundane side. The chorus is repeated, almost to the point of the "stop it already" sort of reaction: "After rain, after rain, we can walk in green fields once again.". However, if they're looking for a crossover hit with a hummable (though somewhat trite chorus), this could be it. Backup vocals are by Great Big Sea . Melodically the tune is pleasant enough, but definitely not the highest point of this recording.

A real contrast is found in the next track, "I Know It's Mine," which is one of the standout tracks on the album for me. The raw emotion of disillusionment with our present world, with its wars and our seeming inability to stop them permeates the lyrics and drives the music. Several lines from the chorus keep repeating in my brain: "In my time we've drunk away a century, in my time we've tried to walk it honestly. love and anger, got to let the spirit shine, in my time that's all I've got..."

In "Someone You Might Have Been," the strong percussion-only opening falsely sets the listener up for another uptempo rocker. In stark contrast, once the song gets going, it's really an almost dirge-like melody fitting for the subject, which is the literal or figurative suicide of someone close to the narrator. Chopper's powerful and mournful cello theme fits the subject all too well.

A brief instrumental break called "kantele" leads the listener into the next song, a very strong number called "She's Moved On," again dealing with personal abandonment at the end of a love affair. The narrator has accepted the reality, but isn't done mourning yet. The minor key fits the subject perfectly. Musically, a totally upfront bass line drives this song, which is well augmented by Chopper's cello. If there was ever an instrument designed to express mournfulness, it seems to me that the cello fits that description better than almost anything else.

"And As For You" is more melodically akin to earlier Oysterband songs (and there's nothing wrong with that, mind you!). Again, this is a song of abandonment, less about lovers than the loss of someone who was thought to be a true friend.

The next instrumental, "cello drop," is credited to Holst (as in Gustav, I believe), as arranged by Chopper/Partis/Prosser, and with instrumental accompaniment by all of them.

Want to get up and dance? The heavily percussive and repetitively rhythmic "Jump Through The Fire" will have you doing just that. Its chorus of "Jump Through the Fire (repeated four times)" -- "to cleanse the soul, you'll never get old, to cleanse the soul, into a different world" -- has a very ritualistic/transformational feel to it.

"This Town" is one of the few happy-sounding tunes on this album -- another self-referential tune which could easily have musically come from an earlier album, and features backup vocals courtesy of Great Big Sea, but melodies can be deceptive. The singer is chasing a chimera in the form of an old lover.

The album closes with a pensive instrumental, "a last glass." I could easily picture sitting in an empty bar, nursing a last drink of whatever one favors as a tipple and just musing on life at that point. It fades out, much like the last dregs of a drink.

After playing together since the early Eighties, the Oysters are now a fully mature band who are thoroughly comfortable with themselves. On this album, their long-standing core line-up consists of Ian Telfer (fiddle, concertina, rainstick, glass harmonica); Chopper (bass guitar, cello, kantele, vocal, harmonica, Hammond organ, acoustic guiar, percussion and glass harmonica); John Jones (lead vocal and melodeon; Lee (drums, vocal, percussion, subliminal piano (huh?), and Alan Prosser (acoustic guitar, banjo, vocal, electric guitars, mandolin, fiddle and percussion).

Not so overtly angry as they were in their earlier recordings, the Oysters have lost none of their lyrical bite when they choose to use it, although they are now perhaps a bit more musically subtle.

This album is their first totally self-produced effort. They left the Cooking Vinyl label, their musical home for many years after their last studio release, Deep Dark Ocean. It is available on their own label, Running Man, in the UK. Here in the US, it's distributed by Omnium -- best-known as the distributors of Boiled in Lead.

Want to hear a sound sample? Go to the Oysterband's official Web site for a short sound clip of "This Is The Voice." Better yet, just go buy the album and listen to the entire thing. I don't think you'll be disappointed!

[Debbie Skolnik]