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Deserters: An Oysterband Album
The Oysterband's Entry as a Matured Folk-Punk Ensemble
Up until this album reached my fingers, 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. This is the general popular opinion among those aware of the band, and began the stretch of critically well-received projects. It's also agreed upon that their earliest works were a bit thin and, while the attitude was there, mired the life of the music in production woes.
"Deserters" was a gamble. It felt older, wiser, and the production was 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. This was actually the first LP the drummer, Lee, would be featured on.
Gaining a Strong Political Voice
In 1995, years after this album was released, Jon Jones was interviewed for their AbsolutLive performance in Germany, where he stated that folk music without something to say becomes a product of the tourist industry. I don't think he's wrong, I've never felt like the widely accepted version of "folk music" to be anything but, and this band's mantra lives strong in other outfits like Spirit of the West.
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 (and of course the dawn of the punk scene in the 70s), 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 folksy 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. Tracks like "The Deserter" and "Never Left" are actually touching and tearful. Even the bombast of "All That Way for This" and "Granite Years" has an edge of "we've been here, it seems fun, but there's a lot of pain involved, too."
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'."
Fiddle or Gun?
Other than "Never Left", which I'll get to in a minute, the rest of the album plays out well, if not predictably. "Bells of Rhymney" is solid, but their later nineties entry off of "Trawler" is a better realization of Pete Seeger's tune. "Fiddle or a Gun" presents sort of the summary of the project, which really would have been a fine ending here instead of "Rhymney", but it's not my artistic choice.
"Never Left" is a very poignant song. I'm not sure why this hasn't caught on beyond the underground scene, because it has every element necessary to be a great, even legendary, folk song. It's not something readily described or understood, unless you've experienced the phenomenon yourself. Either way, this track alone would bring me back to this project, and it's got others there to help it along (Granite Years again, anyone?).
The deserter live
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. On a side note, I've found versions of the LP with and without "Bells of Rhymney", so my previous comments about "Fiddle or a Gun" being the 'best' finale are apparently backed by some of the band, at least.
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, with June Tabor taking the wheel), 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. If anything, what it presents was before its time, and it hasn't gotten the recognition necessary to drag it back into the new-internet-frontier... yet. With the revival of many acts once disbanded, a still-working band should have the same opportunities with oft-forgotten material in their back catalogue, especially material that helped shape a generation of folk musicians.