The duo’s updating of stirring folk tales is eminently modern.
Andrzej Lukowski 2010
While the tradition of covering and reinterpreting decades-, sometimes centuries-old standards has remained comparatively vibrant throughout folk’s inner circles, you’d have to delve back to the days of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie to reach a period when such offerings walked hand in hand with any prevalent cultural zeitgeist.
One notable exception, however, is Bruce Springsteen’s We Shall Overcome, a 2006 album comprising covers of songs written or popularised by Seegar. It spawned The Boss’s best across-the-board reviews in an age, and while there was some obvious political resonance, the record’s success mainly came from providing a pointed reminder as to the timeless greatness of such songs as John Henry.
Amongst the Oak & Ash, the new project from low-profile but well-respected US artists Josh Joplin and Garrison Starr, manages to encroach upon some similar territory, with predominantly entertaining results. Starr’s career is steeped in folk, Joplin’s in alt-rock; between the two of them they fashion a sound that, at its most luscious, isn't dissimilar to early REM, combining a sense of timelessness with a palette hard and electric enough to appeal to the indie hordes.
Indeed, superb opener Hiram Hubbard begins in an eminently modern way, a screech of feedback and heavy thud of drums ushering in crunching guitars that pour grim fire into this tale of an innocent man hanged by a no-good sheriff. Elsewhere things are more subtle: producer Brian Harrison’s sad, heavy anchor of a bassline on the lament Peggy-O; the gentle distortion on Come All You Young & Tender Ladies. In essence Amongst the Oak & Ash do a solid-to-great job of transmogrifying folk songs into indie-folk songs; if this ensures the continued survival of these stirring tales of doomed love and abuse of powers, then mission accomplished.
If Amongst the Oak & Ash has a failing, though, it’s that despite pretty voices and musical deftness, neither Joplin nor Starr inhabit these songs with the sheer force of personality of the greats, Springsteen included. There are certainly moments of undue politeness, but they're in the minority, and forgotten with the final kiss off, a cheeky but surprisingly affecting take on The Smiths' Bigmouth Strikes Again.