This thorty track, two disc set chronicles the Oysterband's middle years, the mid- to late-'80s when they cranked up the volume, pounded out a rock beat and emphasized left-wing politics. Something on the order of Billy Bragg meets Fairport Convention.
The first disc is heavily weighted with selections from 1988's Wide Blue Yonder, while the second is largely drawn from 1990's Ride. Scattered throughout are cuts from Step Outside (1986) and their 1989 live disc, Little Rock to Leipzig.
There's a lot to like on Pearls. The Oysters are all top-notch players, and there are some nice touches on just about every track. I love Ian Telfer's and John Jones' numerous fiddle-accordion duets. Alan Prosser is an accomplished guitarist, though perhaps a bit too imitative of Richard Thompson. Sprinklings of other instruments, from pipes to B-3 organ, lend variety and depth to many of the songs, but they're never overused as gimmicks.
The opening track, Billy Bragg's "Between the Wars," sets the mood for the album. It's an effective piece, with bass and drums laying down a driving rhythm, impressive guitar and accordion work, and some Northumbrian pipes skirling in the background. I'd like to hear the pipes more clearly on the tracks where they're used, but you have to remember, this was pre-River Dance, when such instruments were viewed with suspicion by the general public. You didn't compete with Simply Red and Madonna by sounding too ethnic.
Some of the standout tracks include New Order's "Love Vigilantes," very atmospheric and nicely arranged; Telfer-Prosser's "Polish Plain," with inspired fiddle-accordion interplay and a thundering climax; "A Careless Life," which sonically and thematically bears an uncanny resemblance to certain American indie-rock bands of the same era; the bouncy polka "New York Girls;" and the Motown-soul sound of "This Year Next Year."
I'm not crazy about most of the overtly political songs, particularly "Another Quiet Night in England," "Bully in the Alley" and Phil Ochs' "Gonna Do What I Have to Do," which must have been one of Ochs' weakest efforts.
But the final three tracks on the second disc, all live renditions of rollicking traditional numbers, give an idea of what a good band the Oysters are in concert.
Why then, am I less impressed with the Oysterband than I expected to be? Maybe it's that this collection focuses strictly on the mid- to late-'80s, when the band rose from a moderately successful folk-rock outfit to an Institution. Maybe you had to be there.
Political songs often are, by their nature, a product of their period, and few remain as lasting art for the ages.
The combination of annoying late-'80s recording techniques with what seem to me obvious and sometimes trite lyrics make this a less-than-peak musical experience. It's telling that, when I found myself really enjoying a song, it was written by Trad. Arr.
Clive Gregson's production on tracks from Step Outside and Wide Blue Yonder hasn't aged particularly well. A sharply treble snare drum is pushed to the front of the mix, the bass is muddy, the lead guitar is de-emphasized, and John Jones' lead vocals have far too much echo applied to them. It sounds like he's singing in a barrel, which makes his reedy tenor positively adenoidal at times. (But take a listen to his live, a capella version of Kay Sutcliffe's "Coal Not Dole" for an example of just how good his voice can be when unencumbered by studio frippery.)
In all fairness to the Oysters, I can make the same observation about the production on '80s albums by other gods of the folk-rock pantheon, such as Richard Thompson, Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams. There are probably many others to which the same criticism applies [Editor's Note: the music editor is of the opinion that virtually every artist recording then experienced a slight to major decline during the decade of the '80s. It must have been sunspots or something].
But the production isn't my only criticism. I find many of the songs penned by Ian Telfer and Alan Prosser pretty lame, lyrically. In fact, I'd have trouble telling some of these songs from similar numbers by the Moody Blues, circa 1973. Just add Mellotron.
The liner notes by Colin Irwin leave much to be desired. Irwin tries to pack song-by-song information into a narrative history of the group, and both the history and the track info get short-changed. The songs aren't arranged in any particularly apparent order on the CDs, and better notes would have made it easier to figure out which track is from which album. Two full pages are taken up with grainy, unimaginative black-and-white photos of the group; some of the space could be better used for more text.
I find Pearls from the Oysters a frustratingly mixed bag on which the band shows its potential but often fails to live up to the promise. If you are a longtime fan, you probably have all four of the albums from which the songs on this set are drawn. If you're not, I doubt this set will convert you. It didn't me.