Diamonds on the Water: An Oysterband Album
The Oyster's first original composition in seven years
This album, Diamonds on the Water, should be considered the follow up to "Meet You There" instead of "Ragged Kingdom" (the astounding collaboration with June Tabor, 2011). The aforementioned Oyster original was considered [at that time] to be the consummate album. As a unit, "Meet You There" told a story unparalleled by most anything (except, perhaps their entry "Here I Stand" deserves a mention?), but many seemed to be of the opinion that no particular track stood out by itself. To this, I disagree, but I will say I recall other previous albums having 2-3 tracks that just... "popped".
"Diamonds on the Water" seeks to reconcile these two, it seems. While being a collectively awesome album, there are still those handful of tracks I'll always associate with this album without ambiguity. DotW opens with the a capella intro "Clown's Heart" and doesn't miss a step. Where normally I'd question such a sublime numero uno, but for some inexplicable reason this time, it fits. It also happens to instantly mark this track as a definitive song on that coveted 2-3 list. "Clown's Heart" is reflective of their later work, and probably a reason they chose it as an opener.
The second track's a no brainer, and an instant flashback to an earlier time in the Oyster's career. Sort of the "Blood Red Roses" of DotW, Rowan Godel's voice shines finely here, and honestly I love the whole "Holy Bandits" spiel going on here, so don't let it stop.
"Spirit of Dust" is quite probably the first song most Oyster regulars would have listened to prior to release, thanks mostly to the ubiquitous nature of Youtube (TM) <--- ha. Regardless of the nature by which this track was initially heard, it is on that 2-3 list as well. This song pretty much sums up how I feel about the rest of the album as a whole, and if they can accomplish that in a single song, good for them. The tone of the song is refreshing for a normally edgy group, as well. Much applause, again, to Rowan's amazing harmonic presence.
"Lay Your Dreams Down Gently" is ironically country, but the feel isn't commercial. We're not getting Alabama 2.0 here, these boys are british, and even if a little bit of the americana flair finds its way in, it stays markedly celtic. Rowan again lends her unique vocal assets here, seemingly in larger portion this round. To be honest, this song is otherwise less memorable than the first three tracks, but that's personal opinion there and likely can (probably will) change over time. This seems, also, to be a direct salute to a certain track from "Meet You There."
Next up is the title track. Like the first four tracks, this song is polished and reflective. However, unlike the first quadruple serving, this song doesn't seem to be a reflection of any particular album or era, and therefore it's very much unique to this project. That's not bad, that's quite the opposite. In an album that's dominated largely by what the band does best, there are still glimpses here and there of experimentation in uncharted waters (see: horn section). While I'll not go so far as to toss this into that final spot on my "list", I will mention that this song is within itself artistically potent. It's catchy, it's positive (again with the upbeatness, guys?), and it puts the band into a motif that it's not familiar with.
Like a Fine Wine...
I needed a break, because I'm about to break into the second half of the project. Personally I find that the better portion of this album can be found after track five, but that's not saying that I don't enjoy the intro. I just like where they take it from there!
"Diamonds on the Water" introduced horns into the band's repertoire, along with some optimism, but like all things Oyster, I'll use an oft cliche analogy.
"They're like a fine wine."
Better with age. Certainly rings true for Jack Nicholson, and since he's Jack Nicholson, that really matters.
The best example I think lies in the next track in the set. "Palace of Memory" is a psychedelic extravaganza. Maybe they're on new meds, maybe they've adopted some old ones back, or perhaps someone spiked the tea...regardless of the who, what, where, when, and why, the results are great. I haven't heard them in this form since "Wayfarer" on "Rise Above" (2002). Before that, we always have had our "White Rabbit", etc., but it's really fortunate to see a number (a new number, nonetheless) like this in here. Because I was instantly raptured by this song, I'm going to place it in that coveted third spot on my list, and "Palace of Memory" goes into the "Best Of" folder.
"The Wilderness" is a popular song among the reviewer population, it seems. In and of its own right, it's a great song. It's very much reminiscent of the material they released in the earlier 90's, mainly "Holy Bandits" (joins "River Runs"), but I do find it a bit redundant here. Still, I find myself jovially resounding "You're not the master here" over and over again, so, obviously I'm wrong.
"Once I Had a Sweetheart" brings back the psych to the mix. This is a bit slower and dreamier, but nicely accomplished. Jon Jones hasn't sounded this good before, and he really makes this song work. Well, everyone does their job, so all deserve credit there, but I also want to mention I really enjoyed the guitar on this track as well. It's nice to see Alan a little more prominently displayed this time around, but this track especially highlights his talent.
This next one's the black sheep of DotW, in my opinion. "No Ordinary Girl" opens with an irregular metre and an odd marriage between the guitar and mandolin here, but it sounds lovely. It's one of those little pieces of music that sounds more difficult than it likely is, but I enjoy it nonetheless. Lyrically, this song has no equal for optimism on this album. It's clever and witty, all the while not letting go of the narrative structure. I have to mention that I considered carving a fourth notch for this one, even if just an honourable mention.
"Call You Friend" takes us back to the "Rise Above" era (much akin to "Spirit of Dust", except this time we find ourselves immersed in a classic rocker). Similarly to material produced on that album, this continues the slick guitar rock sound that they "perfected" in "Meet You There" (perfected being the word used, not necessarily my personal choice, I'd use "developed" instead). It's almost rockabilly in its execution, but this is a markedly Oyster track that screams "If You can't be good..." all over. Any long time fans of the band that also favor long road trips with their comrades will probably take an instant liking to this song. Given the situation, of course, I'd be inclined to agree. It's the friendliest track on the album, for sure.
At times in their career, it seems as if the band has tried to maybe stretch its limits a bit beyond what most would expect from them. "Steal Away" seems to strive to do this, taking on an air that the band has weathered the storm. This song is very peaceful, and builds up the the effective conclusion of the project.
"Like a Swimmer in the Ocean" is sublime. There's not much beyond that to add. It's delightfully concise and beautiful, and will go down as one of the best penned closers in the band's repertoire.
"Diamonds on the Water" is the band's newest foray into the folk rock scene, and thanks largely to the publicity of "Ragged Kindom", it will be one of the most bought and listened to albums the band has ever released. I'd like to think that this sort of revival -- one that is bringing Britain's number one folk entourage back to the forefront of the scene -- will inevitably produce the best of the band's work. It's certainly nice to see my favorite band gaining some steam in the world today, with their message of solidarity and sticking it to the money hungry power grabbers. It's great to see the left being given unity of voice through music, as well. It's refreshing that, as an American, I can listen to the unified voice of the human condition worldwide when I plug the Oysters into the player. In a country where much of what the band stands for is considered "taboo", music gives voice to the weary, and to those who keep trying to find the better part of the human spirit in everyone.
DotW accomplishes much, and as such is the case with the Oysterband, leaves us anticipating the follow up with fervor.
Album rating: 9/10
Top Song: Palace of Memory
The Darkhorse track: A Clown's Heart
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