Oysterband, Wide Blue Yonder (PolyGram Records,1987)   

The Oysterband is an English folk-rock group, who in their 1987 recording, Wide Blue Yonder, range from out-and-out rock to American bluegrass to Irish traditional without missing a beat.

The leadoff song "The Generals are Born Again" is a satirical anti-war song, portraying generals as self-deluded would-be messiahs. This song is remarkable for walking the edge like a tightrope master, driving its point home with barely controlled anger. "Pigsty Billy," while less angry, also walks the line of satire, in an odd, if upbeat, rendition of a simple man's simple life.

"The Oxford Girl" is a fascinating song about a young woman's murder and reactions to it. For some reason, I pictured this as taking place in Victorian England, although I am unsure why. For all that this is up-tempo rock, this is a very haunting song. This is especially true when, after a catalogue of rumors about the victim is sung, she laments, "I never had a chance to prove them wrong." (Editors note -- this version of "The Oxford Girl" features vocals by John Jones and Christine Collister. Later versions have only vocals by John Jones.)

"Following in Father's Footstep" and "The Lost and Found" are either songs with references I'm not catching or else are purposefully obscure. Still, they are musically solid, especially the hauntingly urban "The Lost and Found."

The Oysterband shows its range with "Coal Creek Mine," a song of miners' trust in Jesus, even as they are dying, trapped in a mine cave-in. If it were the only the song of The Oysterband that I'd heard, I would think the Oysterband was an American country or bluegrass group.

Although "The Rose of England" (written by Nick Lowe) is one of my favorites of the recording, I have a serious complaint about it. The tune and first verse and half are a great set-up for a fairy tale-like love song -- only to have the song turn into another anti-war/military song. It's a great tune with some great lyrics, but the subject matter and tune are incongruous and jarring without successfully making a point. (And I confess that I sat down and rewrote a few lines of the lyrics; the version that I sing for family, friends, and myself is a love song.)

"The Careless Life" and "Early Days of a Better Nation" may be purposefully paired. The former is the life of a young man, wasted in an unthinking, brief military career (I think: it's another song, whose lyrics are obscure to me). "Early Days of a Better Nation," on the other hand is a song calling for a less careless, more examined life. By not specifying what makes a "Better Nation," it is a remarkable political song that can be words of inspiration for all people. In fact, a copy of the lyrics is taped to my desk at work, and "Work like you were/ Living in the early days of a better nation" is my present signature file for my e-mail.

"The Lakes of Cool Flynn" is one of two traditional songs on this recording. ("Hal-an-Tow" is the other traditional piece.) It is a lovely and sad lament for a young man, who drowns while swimming.

Billy Bragg's "Between the Wars" works is an excellent ending, reflecting many of the themes of "The Generals Are Born Again," including references to the Book of Revelations in this arrangement. This anthem to cradle-to-grave security is a much less satiric and more deeply personal song, to which the Oysterband gives its full due.

Credit goes to Russell Lax's excellent percussion work, especially on "The Oxford Girl," "The Lost and Found," and "The Early Days of a Better Nation." This is a worthwhile recording for all who enjoy folk-rock.

 [Chuck Lipsig]