Saturday, May 1, 2010

Truly Outstanding Albums: Step Outside, by the Oyster Band

The first track on the Oyster Band's album "Step Outside" is a rock version of the traditional English May Day carol "Hal-an-Tow". That's May Day in the sense of Morris dancing and maypoles, not International Workers' Day. The lyrics are all about getting up early to welcome in the summer but, the way they play it, it's a fist-pumping rock anthem.

The fourth track is an original number called "Ashes to Ashes", which is seething with working class rage. It's also a great fist-pumping anthem, albeit one driven by fiddle and melodeon.

So if you're trying to celebrate May Day, but you're not sure which one you want to celebrate, just play this album and celebrate them both.

The album is mostly in this vein. Of the ten tracks, four are traditional English folk songs, and six are original songs devoted to various sorts of left-wing rabble-rousing. Both the traditional material and the original songs have varying degrees of folkiness in their arrangements.

In addition to "Hal-an-Tow", we get "Molly Bond", a haunting ballad about a hunter accidentally shooting his wife, thinking she was a swan, played on just bass and guitar. We also get "Gaol Song", which is similar to American chain-gang songs, but it was originally sung by British prisoners who were forced to push treadmills as punishment. And the last song is the sea chantey "Bold Riley".

"Bold Riley" is played as straight folk, with just voice and melodeon. The only way you'd know it wasn't sung by sailors is that they sing in tune. "Gaol Song", on the other land, is borderline funk. It's also sped up to the point where is sounds like it would be used with an altogether different kind of treadmill. "Molly Bond" gets a sparse arrangement with just bass and guitar.

The original songs include, in addition the aforementioned "Ashes to Ashes", "Flatlands", a less folky song that serves as an anti-"Que Sera Sera". The popular "Another Quiet Night in England" and not-so-popular-but-still-good "Bully in the Alley" go after the dog-eat-dog nature of capitalism. There's a song about the Titanic, "The Day That the Ship Goes Down", which features the line "Grab something rich that floats". And there's the biblical parable "The Old Dance", about Adam and Eve.

Here's the description in "The Old Dance" of God's reaction to the whole apple incident, and the snakes reaction to that:

He stuck a sign on every tree:
"This is private property".
The snake said "Property is theft".
Never mind, there's always one thing left.

"The Old Dance" is also the song that hearkens most strongly to the Oyster Band's origins, as a ceilidh band. Ceilidh is a type of folk dancing similar to contra dancing and, to a lesser-extent, square dancing, where you have a caller who announces the names of the figures the dancers are supposed to do. "The Old Dance" mixes in ceilidh dance calls into the lyrics, similar to the Street Sweeper Social Club's hip-hop square dance "Promenade".

The above description, as well as the album art, would suggest that the Oyster Band is not particularly, you know, hip. And at the time that "Step Outside" came out, that assessment would be correct. The Oyster Band is one of the few bands that got hipper as they aged. Singer/Melodeonist John Jones (middle on the album cover) got some sort of infection that meant he always had to wear sunglasses. Guitarist Alan Prosser (right on the cover) got rid of his fro. Fiddle-player/Saxophonist Ian Telfer (second from right on cover) was forbidden from playing saxophone. The bass-player and drummer were replaced with younger people (and the new bass player also plays cello) who provided more intricate harmonies in the back-up singing.

The result is that the band now looks like this:

They also changed their name to "Oysterband" (one word) and produced an entire string of truly outstanding albums in the 90s "Holy Bandits" (1993), "The Shouting End of Life" (1995), "Deep Dark Ocean" (1997) and "Here I Stand" (1999).

But "Step Outside" makes good use of the goofiness of the earlier years of the band, as well as its ceilidh-band roots, making it the best of their earlier, unhip albums. The goofiest song on the album is "The Day That the Ship Goes Down" which is, coincidentally, the only song on the album with Telfer playing saxophone:

A song like that may not get much hipster credibility, especially given that hipsters are notorious for having an unfounded and irrational hatred for saxophones. But the song's just so much fun.

In keeping with that goofiness, a lot of the political songs are also pretty comical. For instance, this bit from "Ashes to Ashes" dealing with the misspending of foreign aid:

"Sorry, we don't touch agriculture,
Not without hard currency.
Better buy some rocket launchers.
With six you get a shovel free."

"Step Outside" is the sound of a ceilidh band taking a stand. It's the sound of melodeon-playing bumpkins from Kent decide to give two fingers to Thatcher. And it's every bit as wonderful as you think.

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