"Get your head up, gonna rise above!" The title song of Rise Above would make an Oysterband fan of me, even if I'd never heard another song by the British folk-rockers. It isn't the sound that first entranced me, but if I heard this on the radio, I'd be raving about them in a minute.
In the past, the Oysterband has given me everything I want from music: a sinewy strength, musical roots and simplicity; sheer skill with instruments and words; a beat that I can dance and stomp and rejoice with; and idealism based on a lot of love for people -- without getting pretentious.
This album continues in the same vein. The songs resonate with the riffs and themes and lyrics of so many previous works that Rise Above feels like a "Best Of" album -- of all new songs. Rise Above isn't as exciting as the roaring defiance of Holy Bandits, nor is it as quiet and story-laden as Deep Dark Ocean. The Oysters have been at this business long enough to know what they're doing, and their roots are showing. If you've liked previous Oysterband albums, you'll find something to like here.
As a fan of long standing, I'm not entirely pleased by this. I expected a step forward into new territory -- this feels like a shuffle sideways. Nevertheless, in my limited sampling, I've noticed that something in the album seems unusually attractive to both friends and strangers from outside the folk ranks. (I've watched fans of NSYNC, who weren't even born when the Oysterband formed, turn on to the harmonies and rhythms on this album. I am bemused, but delighted.)
Quick theme check: Two songs are about social injustice and what's fucked up in the world. Two songs are about shouting (in general, and also specifically shouting about what's fucked up in the world). Two songs mention souls, and another is about transcendence. Two songs discuss relationships, and one traditional. Other than the lack of a dedicated drinking song, this is a fairly standard mix for an Oyster album.
The Oysters have aimed their sights at globalization and drugs (medication rather than recreational) and some of the images they use -- like the clown in "Uncommercial Song" -- will stay with me. Instrumentally, the strings have taken a backseat to guitars and a host of guests playing pipes, keyboards, and whistles. Chopper continues to play the haunting kantele first heard on Here I Stand.
When I first heard the song "Rise Above," I put my pencil down at the first chorus. My notes immediately after listening consist mostly of variations of "my god." It moves from fairly dark lyrics through Moody-Blues-style harmonies to the sweetest gospel. I'm a sucker for male harmony and a danceable beat. I'm a sucker for songs about transcendence, and the good in the human soul. This song pushes my buttons, rings my bell, and leaves me grinning like a madwoman.
The lyrics, "Get your head up, gonna rise above" are classic. Getting your head up -- and keeping it up in tough times -- are what most of the Oysterband's music is about. Nevertheless, a part of me keeps expecting to hear that line as, "Get your head out" (as in "out of your ass") -- a sentiment that wouldn't surprise me from the Oysterband. Another lyric echoes "Quiet Night in England's" "Money rides while people crawl" -- except in "Rise Above" the words are, "We'll fly where money crawls."
The entire album -- like much of the Oysterband's past recordings -- concerns making a good time in dark times. The Oysters celebrate Everyman's struggle to deal with bullshit -- emotional, political, economic, physical -- without becoming a bitter, soulless, narcissistic bastard. Just as "When I'm Up I Can't Get Down" dealt with the manic side of manic-depression, "Rise Above" addresses everyone who has dealt with chronic pain or depression. I'm in love with the sweet shining harmonies, with the gentleness of it, I suppose. "It's hard to throw yourself a lifeline."
If church had had music like "Rise Above," I might have stayed. The last minute of the song, including vocals by Rowan Godel, is pure joy. My sort of church hymn: inspiring and beautiful. For that matter, if church music had sounded like "Bright Morning Star," I'd still be going and listening, too. Beautiful, beautiful a capella and a delightful arrangement on this traditional song. It offers all the strength of shape-note singing, without the stridence.
"Wayfaring" is electric! This is the same basic story as "Flatlands" -- the traveler encountering bloated comfortable masses sinking deeper into stupor. The anger is the same, although the imagery has changed somewhat, and it includes the fall of Sodom as well as hope for a better future. It offers some hope, but don't think the travelers have a clue what they're doing: "we're flying high on a wing and prayer/I hope we know when we get there."
If I needed one word to describe "Uncommercial Song" it would be "subtle." Stop laughing -- the Oysterband isn't always in-your-face, ala "We'll be There." This song evoked a mass of associations. The first few listens revealed the surface: a catchy refrain, upbeat feel, and opaque lyrics. There are instrumental echoes of "Holy Bandits" in here. The meaning behind the lyrics and some of the images sneak in the back door. The words make more sense if you remember that John Jones has been reading Fast Food Nation and that in the last release, they took on MacDonald's. Then, "On the Edge" said: "Bring me Ronald McDonald's head/between two bits of bread". This time the clown's back, as a more horrific image.
I hated the lyrics of "If you can't be good" the first time I heard it. Then I loved them. Then I disliked them. Then I made out one line near the end that made the entire song for me. If you care about the words, expect to be polarized, depending on how you feel about the assholes in your life. If the tune is more important to you, this is a knees-up good-times song with delightful Uillean pipes, played by James O'Grady. When did John start doing those vocal fillips? I like them, in moderation.
"Shouting About Jerusalem" is a story song about passion, about fighting for a place for passion in this rationalist world, where "you'd better take your medication." Another visit from the punk end of the Oyster spectrum. It retreads the same path as "Another Quiet Night in England" with some digs at the Prozac Nation.
The opener of the album, "The soul's electric" starts out prototypically Oyster. Can anyone hear the words "soul's electric" without thinking "body electric"? I can't. The lyrics aren't much, but the music is a pleasure, building from pared-down acoustic to the whole "ah-ah" backup vocals and drum. The guitar (or is it mandolin?), presumably played by Alan Prosser, is bright and clean as bells on a cloudless day.
"Blackwaterside" is another in the folk-with-punk-sensibility traditional songs that the Oysterband do so well. It's a strong tune, well played. And wow, John Jones is singing pretty high. The arrangements of both "Everybody's leaving home" and "My mouth" grow on me, but they're not favorites.
I love parts of this album, and am fond of all of it.