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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Album review: Offa Rex – The Queen of Hearts

Album cover: Offa Rex album Queen of Hearts
Album cover: Offa Rex album Queen of Hearts

The Queen of Hearts

Offa Rex

(Nonesuch Records)

Offa Rex was born out of love for a neglected art form.

It all came about when American indie-group The Decemberists reached out to British singer Olivia Chaney on Twitter after they were blown away by her take on the standard Willie O’ Winsbury on her 2015 debut album The Longest River.

The conversation turned to a joint tour and has now been cemented with this album, The Queen of Hearts, under the name Offa Rex.

In what is essentially a set of covers of traditional English folk standards, it is immediately apparent how the group have struck a fine balance between paying respect to the original, while at the same time giving them a deft modern makeover.

A lot of this is down to Tucker Martine (credits include REM, Stephen Malkmus and Modest Mouse), whose vibrant production keep even the most maudlin songs infused with energy.

Indeed, what stands out, and what may disconcert a fair few listeners, is how loud it all is. The album sounds as if the group plugged into their amplifiers for a slightly raucous set in the living room.

If you are listening with your headphones and your find that your head is ringing after the first few tunes, it will almost certainly be down to heady brew of chiming guitars, electric harpsichord and droning harmonium.

None of them overpower The Queen of Hearts' biggest asset: those absolutely gorgeous vocals of Chaney, which can illicit goosebumps and tears in equal measure.

Her take on The Old Churchyard is spectral. In Chaney’s hands, a sombre meditation on death becomes something hopeful and soothing.

The Celtic-tinged Bonny May has Chaney and The Decemberists locking in perfectly, sounding like a souped-up Clannad.

The audacious Sheepcrook and Black Dog provides a daring middle section that has Chaney's vocals soaring over a sea of thick, Black Sabbath-like riffs.

Brilliant and revelatory, The Queen of Hearts is the folk album you never knew you needed.