Palace Of Tears / Never Stop Moving
For well over thirty years now, the Oysterband has been one of the U.K.'s preeminent folk groups. The Oysters are – as declared by fRoots magazine – icons, a group bursting at the seams with talent. Lately, solo ventures are emerging from the Oysters camp. True, Ray Cooper (a.k.a. Chopper) left the Oysterband in 2013, but he was so invested with the Oysterband for many years that I am teaming his second album, Palace Of Tears, with the second solo album, Never Stop Moving, from Oysterband lead singer John Jones.
Both CDs are essential storytelling in the folk tradition, and very different. John Jones' album, recorded with his backing band The Reluctant Ramblers, strikes one as a bit more direct lyrically, as well as more hook-laden. Jones is really in fine fettle here; the man simply has a great voice. While Never Stop Moving is a strong folk album with a slight pop sheen, the album works with challenging themes.
The opening song “Down By The Lake” has a slow, shuffling gait that buttresses a tale of gun violence. The lyrics are just sufficiently vague enough, so that while the 'boy' in the song vanishes from the scene of the crime, the aftermath is open to interpretation. “She Wrote Her Name Today” movingly recounts the recovery of a heroin overdose victim; in lesser hands, this could be maudlin material, but Jones' skill, and his own personal medical recovery from a quite different crisis, make the song resonate and glow with optimism. “Ghosts of the Village” addresses another contemporary problem: the changing character of the idyllic English villages, which are being bought up by city dwellers as traditional jobs have been filtering away.
There are also touches of the kind of 'ear worms' that the Oysterband has delivered over the years. In fact, “Ferryman” reminds me of the Oysters' more acoustic “Deep Dark Ocean” phase. Jones' “The Black and White Bird” is a truly lovely song, filled with imagery and symbolism: “To the girl on the chestnut horse/Please tell her I'll be gone tomorrow/I leave to her this black and white bird/Two for joy, one for sorrow.” And while Jones does not trot out his melodeon on the album, we do get three traditional songs: the hearty “Jim Jones,” “You Rambling Boys of Pleasure,” and the deeply rocking and percussive “Banks of Newfoundland.”
Ray Cooper's Palace Of Tears is a natural follow-up to his phenomenal 2010 release, Tales of Love War & Death by Hanging. On Tales, Cooper made it apparent that he was going to combine his English and Scottish background with a European aesthetic, borrowing from Nordic traditions. While Tales featured songs that were based on historical events, Palace Of Tears manages to take history and personal experience and join them together into something new. Listening to Palace Of Tears reminded me of watching European art-house cinema: Cooper's songs unfold in complex ways, and work themselves under your skin.
Cooper's voice – such a mellow surprise on Tales – still leads the way here, bolstered by the dark timbre of his cello playing. The songs are sometimes stark, and infused with painful beauty. “A Line In The Sand” is as good a description of the desire for oil, and the turmoil it causes on the world stage, as you are likely to find. “Mountainside” is a marvel: “I was born by border where the forest meets the plain/Before me were the roadways to fortune and fame/But behind was the mountain with her valleys black as night/That drew me like an ember away from the light.”
The title track, “Palace Of Tears,” is a vivid glimpse into the end of a holiday romance in East Berlin, devastating in both its lyricism and in the swelling string arrangement.
Elsewhere, we get the power of forest magic (“Destroying Angel,” either a deadly woman, or a deadly fungus); an homage to Cooper's Scottish roots (“Sleeping Giant,” which seems to feature a very similar tune – slowed down – as the traditional song “Narragansett Bay”); a picture of the port of Hamburg (“Calling Of The Dove”); and the striking “The King's Birthday,” which segues into the lovely “Maarit's Waltz.” Closer “When The Curtain Falls” shimmers, the melody based on a Swedish polka, and which also features Cooper playing the kantele. The tune swoops and sways, fading out into the continental night.
In sum, Never Stop Moving and Palace Of Tears each light their own distinctive candles, as we head into the shorter and cooler days of the gathering fall. Both recordings are superb achievements, and more than worthy of your time. – Lee Blackstone
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