Well, I’m kind of nervous to write about this… not sure why but in part I think it’s because it’s probably the album I’ve listened to the most in regards to A Year In The Country.
So, where to start?
Well, with the packaging, as in this case you can judge a book by it’s cover; the album is presented in a lovely and lovingly put together sleeve (artwork by Mr Dom Cooper of the Straw Bear Band and who also sings on this album, link below) which makes it feel like a precious artifact…
The music? Well, I guess it could be categorised as folk but it has it’s own take or edge to it… many of these songs are folk music mainstays and both musically and visually it uses what could be considered standard tropes of folk music, folklore and culture…
…but this is anything but a mainstream folk album. Why? Well, I can’t quite put my finger on it but there are other layers and intelligence to it all, a pattern beneath the plough as it were. As an album it feels subtley experimental but still maintains it’s listenability.
The songs wander from the Archie Fisher-esque take on Polly On The Shore, through to the quite pretty-but-if-you-listen-to-the-lyrics you realise that this is actually quite an odd story of Willie O’Winsbury (and a reprise by way of The Wickerman’s Procession as if played by a New Orleans marching band), through to the ghostly indeed The Lover’s Ghost (featuring vocals by former Mellow Candle member Alison O’Donnell) and the album also draws on the talents of amongst others Nancy Wallace and then to…
Well then to Cruel Mother which is probably one of the most brutal, disturbing songs I’ve ever heard. I won’t go into too many details but I find this song physically hard to listen to. Not because it is musically disonnant, it’s actually wrapped up ina rather lovely musical package but because the story is so unsettling.
The album end with the line from that song “‘Tis we for heaven and you for hell” and as Steven Collins says in the sleeve notes, what could come after that. In the context of this song/album, it’s true as it’s such a devastating line.
The band were formed by Steven Collins, drawing it’s name from Alan Garner’s The Owl Service novel…
According to an interview with him in Jeanette Leech’s Seasons They Change (her book on the story of acid and psychedelic folk) originally The Owl Service didn’t physically exist as a band but was more created by him as an imagined idea for his ideal folk band, one which drew it’s influences from a certain section of 1960s and 1970s British film and television and the sound of the English folk revival. Apparently people became interested in this at the start imaginary band (though they didn’t know of it’s insubstantialness) and began asking when they would be putting their songs out into the world… and from that the band became a real project… which I quite like as a way of something starting.
Also, I think I’m drawn to the album and indeed the work that Steven Collins makes/collaborates on because there is a sense of creating a world and an accompanying hands-on small scale cottage industry that supports and sends the music etc out into the wider world. Just getting on with it, from gig only CD-Rs via subscription 7″s to a limited edition package that contained every Owl Service song up to that point on one disc (see below and something I may return to later).
“She wants to be flowers but you make her owls. You must not complain then if she goes hunting.” What a quote (from Alan Garner’s The Owl Service). “I am the wolf in every mind” indeed.
Well worth a look-see-hear indeed.
Anyway, here are a few pathways of interest:
Steven Collins current activities via Stone Tape Recordings.
Dom Coopers work and influences here.
Nancy Wallace here.
Alison O’Donnell here.
Jeanette Leach Seasons They Change here.