Album Preview: Offa Rex ‘The Queen of Hearts’

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 — Queenis 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.

By Jason Heller