Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.
Courtesy of the artist
Offa Rex, The Queen of Hearts.
Courtesy of the artist
Over the past 17 years, the members of The Decemberists have gravitated toward a variety of genres, from quirkiness of indie pop to the complexity of progressive rock. But with their new project Offa Rex — a collaboration between the Portland, Oregon-based outfit and the English singer Olivia Chaney — frontman Colin Meloy and crew are dipping their toes into an older current: folk.
The Queen Of Hearts is the title of Offa Rex's debut album, which features the musicians in The Decemberists backing up Chaney, who assumes lead vocalist duties. It's a match made in folk-rock heaven. Like similar team-ups of yore — most notably the legendary pairing of The Albion Band and Shirley Collins in the early 1970s — Queen is an interpolation of vintage British Isles folk music as filtered through electric guitars and a sinewy rock backbeat. The result is both a tribute and translation, connecting the dots between contemporary indie music and a deeper cultural legacy.
The album draws heavily on the folk songbook, from the haunting drone of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" to the jangly melancholy of "Bonnie May," a timeless ode to a love gone off to war. Tragedy, romance and the rhythms of everyday life inform Queen's exquisitely curated playlist. "Dark Eyed Sailor," a Steeleye Span favorite in the '70s, coasts on gently strummed chords and Chaney's heart-piercing plea for fidelity. And on the disc's sumptuous title track, a psychedelic energy suffuses the song's otherwise primordial lilt.
Chaney takes gripping prominence on the album — her voice is an arresting, attention-demanding trill — but she doesn't sing lead throughout. On "Blackleg Miner," Meloy sings lead, breathing a tremulous righteousness into the song's tale of the plight of striking coalminers in 19th-century England. Steeleye Span returned the song to prominence in 1970, and Offa Rex does justice to a classic ballad of injustice. And on "Constant Billy Eddington/I'll Go Enlist Sherborne," vocals are done away with entirely, leaving the ebullient jig to dance along on its own.
The Decemberists have long shown a fascination with the tragedy of folklore, and it was probably inevitable that they'd wind up making a traditional folk-rock album at some point in their careers. But by teaming with Chaney, they've surpassed delivering a mere homage. Instead, The Queen Of Hearts hums with the resonance of bygone eras and ancient ways, of doomed love and arduous hardship — all of it embroidered into the patchwork tapestry of life itself.