Deserters: An Oysterband Album
The first "real" album by the Oysterband
It was a foggy day in April, I believe. So fitting to play the esteemed Oysterband's "20th of April", I thought. This day, however, would be set as a change.
Up until this moment, I'd only been presented with a handful of Oysterband albums. My virgin album, "Deep Dark Ocean" (1997), remains my sentimental favorite. It was closely followed that summer (of 2007, I think) by purchasing their newer release, "Rise Above" (2002). Both albums were superb introductions to the world of modern folk rock, a blend of the craziness that hurled music into the mainstream in the 60's with the sonic force of the british underground of the 80's.
Well, I was hooked. It was my personal "summer of love", where I lived in a sort of dream, cavorting around cape towns and beaches, falling in love, and whatever else starry eyed young people get tied up with. Frankly, I forget most of it anyway. But, what I do remember, is that this band had forced its way not only into my catalog, but swiftly rose to becoming the defining band in my eyes.
Well, it became due time to expand such a catalog, and my eagerness couldn't be abated. I'd run across copies of "Holy Bandits" (1993) and "Shouting End of Life" (1995), which were considered the highest critically acclaimed albums they'd released to-date. Essentially by now I'd collected half of the absolutely needed Oysterband discography.
I was hesitant to delve as far back as 1991, since it wasn't until they released "Holy Bandits" that I felt that the band had come into its true form (the samplings I'd heard of "Ride" and "Wide Blue Yonder" were underwhelming, but not disagreeable). I'm also not the type of person who samples tracks on emarkets like Amazon, etc., because they're too short, often a poor representation of the whole, and frankly it just wastes my time since I'll end up buying it anyway [right?].
"Deserters" was a gamble. This was the album that die-hard fans (always too few and far between for such an awesome collective of musicians) referred to as the "coming of age" experience. It felt older, wiser, and sleeker. They didn't sell out, because the signature jangle of Prosser's Stratocaster remained steady, along with the melodious fiddle of Telfer and the cello/bass combination of Chopper. I felt like Lee, the drummer, had been underrepresented in some of the albums I'd purchased, but here his percussion is loud, steady, and rocky. In fact, there's virtually nothing about this album at all that is reminiscent of "true" folk music.
The deserter live
Political, yet tasteful
This word pops up in my vocabulary often. Perhaps because I'm rendered helpless by addiction, I'm obsessive about the most absurd things, or because I don't always know when to give up.
The Oysterband has, in their career, exercised off and on the use of restraint. The antithesis of this would be "Shouting End of Life", which pretty much takes an unforgiving political stance reminiscent of the 1960's counterculture, with no apology and no regret. On the other hand, it's argued that they used too much restraint in their follow up to that album, [my personal favorite] "Deep Dark Ocean", which takes on a singer-songwriter approach and is far more folky than any release prior to this album.
"Deserters" tends to the right of center this go-round on restraint. While it's not beyond Jones' ability to slide in some social commentary and rage, they steep it in cleverness and empathy.
The album begins with "All That Way for This" and "The Deserter", both incredibly political tracks (but not the same subject). Both are akin to the jangle-pop sound of 10,000 Maniacs while still retaining the signature blend of the band. "The Deserter" is most poignant, I feel, for any young person who is forced into the draft.
"Angels of the River" and "We Could Leave Right Now" sort of play together here. One is a male angst tune rife with the same rage that propels their anger surrounding politics, while the latter is a sort of melancholy love ballad. Neither one is either memorable or forgettable, but they are not bad songs.
"Elena's Shoes" heads back into the sociopolitical commentary, this time as a wag of the finger to the excessively wealthy. This might be the most severe track on the album, with scathing remarks like "she said 'I'd rather die than look like a loser'."
Well, at this point in the listening experience, I was pretty impressed. It certainly carried much, much more rock elements than folk (which perplexed me about their categorization at this time in history, where they were often cited as a folk band), but it's not necessarily the modern, poppy alt-rock you'd hear on the radio. This album was the Oysterband's attempt to get simple and dirty with rich, good old fashioned classic rock.
That being said, the album takes a startling turn at the midpoint. "Granite Years" blasts out of my car's radio and I'm immediately hooked. It's what I'm hearing that I will come to define as the perfect celtic folk-rock anthem. In fact, there's not really any way for me to describe it appropriately and convey the message without struggling, since words aren't something seemingly capable of such expression. Just understand that, upon hearing this song for the first time, I was changed. Beyond that, the experience is still mysterious.
Coming off the high of the former track, I check the CD jacket to see what I could expect next. It didn't take six tracks to really hook me, but it was the sixth track that convinced me that the Oysterband wasn't a hoax. Well, the following track was called "Diamond for a Dime", which is musically similar to "Elena's Shoes", but I'm almost entirely uncertain what the song is actually saying. It's a fun song to sing along with, though, and is great for road trips.
All of a sudden, "Deserters" felt like a story. It had taken me from the desperation of the opening tracks to the euphoria of the middle, and had tested the waters of my political ideology (especially being an American, there was much learning I needed to accomplish regarded politics). "Never Left" takes this album in the same direction as the rest of the album had to this point, a love song about making the best of what we have (essentially). It has some religious imagery present, which is easy to appreciate with my upbringing and somewhat fledgling experience outside of religion.
"Ship Sets Sail" is the only song on the album that feels like a hiccup, but it's not because it's a bad song at all. It's just a song that, to me, would feel more at home six years later on "Deep Dark Ocean", but that's just my opinion. It's still grounded in the rock element, though lyrically this could be considered the most folk-inspired of this project.
The album comes to a close with "Fiddle or a Gun" and "Bells of Rhymney". The first of these two presents a similar dilemma as "The Deserter": fight or dance, and which one wins in the end. The latter was penned by the great late Pete Seeger, but this particular version isn't this band's penultimate moment with this tune--one needs to access the 1997 compilation "Trawler" for that (precluded by a beautiful "Coal, not Dole").
Short and Sweet
"Deserters" is actually a pretty timely little piece, considerably more efficient with the clock than their longer ventures later in the decade, especially "Here I Stand" (1999).
With only eleven tracks, the album doesn't drag on or repeat messages over and over again--a common error made by many, many folk artists. With an occasional mention or reminder that war stinks, dancing is great, friends are even better, oh...and we don't like people who fondle their money, "Deserters" confirmed for me that this was indeed the start of something really special--during my lifetime--in the musical world.
And while the Oysterband continues to amaze me with just how unknown they really are, they're now breaking out into the scene with more notice than ever (see: Ragged Kingdom), they've clearly inspired far more popular acts over the years, and have collaborated with many of them as well. "Deserters" was the album that truly placed this band on the map, and even though it's not their best (I would have trouble placing it anywhere above fifth in ranking), it could be argued that this album is by far the most important.
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