Oysterband, Meet You There (Westpark Music, 2007)
This, the Oysterband's first studio album in some (too many!) years, finds the band grayer, more pensive, and, I'm relieved to report, still angry. I imagine that last bit will come as a relief to many fans, who might have feared a certain mellowing that is reputed to come with time. They may be long in the tooth, but those teeth are still sharp. Meet You There is a pleasure, easy on the ears, and full of allusions to things that piss off all people of goodwill, albeit seen through the muck-coloured glasses of middle age, and preoccupied with endings, divisions, crossings over and a certain ennui that comes when we realize the distance of our journeys. The band's time away from the studio has served them well -- the production strikes just the right balance between the raw immediacy of a live show and the finesse that comes from the studio. Listening to Meet You There reinforces the band as a superb touring outfit who know how to bring the magic of the stage into the studio.
Having just reviewed their most recent live release -- an acoustic souvenir from the late 1990s, Northern Lights -- I was pleased to hear an honest, mostly acoustic production on Meet You There. I haven't seen the Oysters live in a few years -- a little matter of less intercontinental travel on both our parts, but listening to this album made me want to get on a plane. There are several gems here that I can only imagine are fixtures of the live show. "Here Comes the Flood" has got to be a crowd pleaser -- it's an infectious anthem driven by Prosser's insistent guitar and a series of evocative images with a rousing call to arms in the chorus, ending with, "some people think I'm crazy, but I'm not. Heeeeere comes the flood." Several weeks ago Canadians were treated to the sight of a town in Newfoundland tipping and falling off a seaside cliff whose foundations were being eroded by rising waters, so I found this image both timely and appealing. Indicted by "While we sip Shiraz and chill / They bring us apples from Brazil / New diseases from the Congo" I was perversely comforted by the a minor lyrical mis-step of "Rich kids in the west you see / they have no sense of irony / And I could lose my sense of humour": clearly the lads haven't been hanging out with rich kids lately! Trust me, irony is alive and well amongst the young of most classes. Still, this song is probably my favorite on Meet You There, just edging out the competition after only a week or so of listening.
There is something very real, very fresh about these songs, although there is also something reminiscent about a few of them as well. It's hard not to catch the strains of the songs of days gone by in a few places. "Walking Down the Road with You" draws the "Drunkard's Waltz" to mind. I could almost hear "I don't know where she found me but the bar stood still" underneath "I am a circus master of every secret fear..." The wailing fiddle revisits one the arrangements from Deserters -- albeit sans the too-smooth production -- reinforcing some mildly-creepy lyrics, where the "circus master" promises to set the tigers of the partner's "caged-up fears hidden down the years." Well, hope springs eternal, even in hearts of middle-aged men, I guess. That's one I would love to see live! Can John Jones still pull off theis type of un-reconstructed, audacious male sentiment that marked "When I'm Up, I Can't Get Down"? You see, hope also animates the hearts of middle-aged women.
"Someone Somewhere" is a driving testimonial to the angst inevitable amongst those "with a shattered soul and a lust for life." "Just One Life" borrows directly from earlier themes of thwarted childhood, with "if nothing is given / nothing is required / sent to bed early, the boy never tired." Closing the album is "Dancing as Fast as I Can," whose delicate call to community exhorts the listener to "trust in the power of music" with the caveat that "it's only the white of your knuckles / That's keeping this plane in the air." Without reproducing the liner notes, it should be obvious that there is some great strong writing here. "Bury Me Standing" is a appealing anthem with a great hook, mixing hopes and regrets acquired in a traveling life on the road,
What I can't bear to remember / Is what I can't bear to forget
We can only hope that these troubadours continue to share their visions as they travel on. Meet You There is an adamant reminder that the Oysterband's visions remain relevant and inspiring; they are a creative force whose power to delight and challenge is only growing with time. Long time fans should be thrilled, and those new to the band will wonder how they could possibly have missed out.