Despite their folk beginnings, Oysterband are more eclectic and mainstream-minded than just a folk band – as this fine seventeen-year retrospective shows.

Label: Navigator Records
Time:  29 tracks / 59 + 49 mins

It was Oysterband’s Ragged Kingdom collaboration with June Tabor that got them last onto this site and one track from that remarkable disc makes it to this 2-CD compilation: their stripped back cover of Joy Division’s “Love will Tear us Apart.”

I always think of Oysterband as a folk outfit, but as that track showed, they are more eclectic and mainstream-minded than that. This set is full of compact, colourful songs that often bound along at a cracking pace.   

As you would hope with a retrospective of their last six albums, with so much to choose from, there is barely any filler, and none on the first disc, comprising fifteen tracks selected by the band.

 Their folk expertise is very clear on two classic traditional songs: “Blackwaterside” and “Bright Morning Star” – the latter an à capella multi-voice harmony track that may be the best version I have heard of the song.

The mandolin-fuelled stomp “Here Comes the Flood” hints at other musical directions and “Rise Above” has something of REM about it, while the cello part of “On the Edge” comes straight from ELO’s “10538 Overture” (which itself is, ahem, ‘borrowed’ from  The Beatles’ “Dear Prudence”).

And throughout the first disc especially, John Jones’ vocals keep reminding me of The Moody Blues’ Justin Hayward, and never more than when backed by strings on “Spirit of Dust” and on “Uncommercial Song” (which is nothing of the sort, with its singable chorus).

There is a terrific poetry to the songs, as shown on the track about fear of the future, a fear that is “Walking Down the Road with You:”
     “You wrestle with your conscience because you think it's real
     It's my dreams that lead you on, my schemes that turn the wheel
     You cannot change direction, it's bred into your bone
     Wherever you are going, well you'll never walk alone

     'cause I, I am the ghost of things to come
     And I'm walking down the road with you

     I am the circus master of every secret fear
     Those caged-up desires you've hidden down the years
     It’s me that cracks the whip and it's me that keeps the keys
     And when the show begins I'll set the tigers free

     Do you get a sense of history repeating?
     Have you made the same mistakes again?
     Do you see me smiling in the bathroom mirror?
     It’s a greeting from the beast within.”

The second disc is the usual miscellany of such retrospectives (one live track, two demos, four alternate versions), but it is no set of rejects. Opening track “I Built this House” (the story of a man working his socks off, but still losing his home) is a new work that keeps up their reputation for a dash of politics.  The following track, “Ways of Holding On” is as good as any song here.

My only explanation for why Bellowhead and the Mumfords have enjoyed more crossover success from the folk world is that those bands are younger and more extrovert, but I’ll take Oysterband’s experience, polish, restraint and time-withstanding quality any day.  

Derek Walker