Jackie Oates is an established member of the folk firmament by now – remarkably, The Spyglass & The Herringbone is her sixth album. It’s a welcome return, with her vocals and fiddle playing somehow familiar and comforting whilst feeling fresh and exciting at the same time. Its springtime release seems particularly apt.
Following her almost-side-project Lullabies album (which we talked to her about here), Spyglass is the first record Oates has recorded while working closely with new band member Chris Sarjeant – a talented guitarist and songwriter in his own right. Nowhere is his influence felt more keenly than on the superb title track – a dreamy, relaxed piece that belies the melancholy nature of its subject matter (classic Jackie Oates, in other words). The song relates to the tokens attached to children abandoned to The London Foundling Hospital – the first home in Britain set up for their care, in 1739. Between them, Sarjeant and Oates ensure the matter is dealt with surely and sensitively.
Oates again proves canny with her choice of collaborators. As well as Sarjeant (whose guitar work on final track Banks of the Bann is simply exquisite), the album is peppered with distinctive banjo from Jack Rutter and Ben Walker (of ‘Josienne Clarke and’ fame) – “domestic ballad” John Blunt makes a sharp opener – plus stirring contributions from Nick Hart on boxes and hammer dulcimer, flute from Calum Stewart, and guitar and piano from Oates’ brother Jim Moray.
Having rearranged The Sugarcubes’ Birthday on her Hyperboreans album of 2009, Oates repeats the modern-ish pop song trick here, this time reconstructing The Sundays’ Can’t Be Sure. It sounds like it was always a folk song, with an appealing homespun honesty to its lyrics: “England my country / the home of the free / such miserable weather”. There’s an orchestral outro courtesy of composer Joe Duddell, surprisingly dense (but not unwelcomely so) on an album that’s otherwise comprised of light touches.
Oates remains a seemingly effortless interpreter of traditional song, and her choice of trad tracks here will delight folkies: There’s a sprightly, confident Doffing Mistress and Cornish song Robbers’ Retreat – one of many from Oates’ beloved Westcountry – comes with a lively handclap backing and an irresistible chorus. It’s surely a future live singalong favourite, and one that makes a life of crime seem strangely appealing. The Halsway Carol runs it close for catchiness, with an almost chant-like quality to its delivery. A raucously joyful version of Hail! Hail! The First of May, by Dave Webber, perhaps makes this, pound-for-pound, Oates’ most cheerful album yet.
And yet… if Oates is at home with traditional material, she’s positively tucked up in bed with melancholia. Spyglass features a beautifully sad, absorbing version of Take This Letter to My Mother, while The Yellow Bittern, based on an Irish poem in which a man is struck with the significance of the death of one of the titular birds, is simply heartbreaking, despite its ostensibly positive message.
Cheerful, melancholy, complex, personal… The Spyglass & The Herringbone is all these things: a multi-layered, thoughtful and beautifully made album. Here’s to the next six!
The Spyglass & The Herringbone is out on April 27 on ECC Records