Who/what is Offa Rex, you may ask? It’s a rather splendid collaboration between British singer and instrumentalist Olivia Chaney and American pop voyagers The Decemberists. But let there be no mistaking which stylistic side of the great pond its new album, “The Queen of Hearts,” operates from.
The record’s 13 songs aim for precisely the sound that Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and the Albion Band began to mine in the late 1960s. This was music that embraced the heart of British folk not with an archivist’s sense of tradition but with a jolt of rock ’n’ roll. The Fairport connection goes further, though. Offa Rex favors not a modernist slantbut a psychedelic-inclined fabric that electrifies these songs in a manner that recalls — in terms of arrangement, tone and even vocal approach — the entire feel of decades-old British folk-rock.
One could suggest that Chaney is to Offa Rex what the great Sandy Denny was to the three 1969 Fairport albums (“What We Did on Our Holidays,” “Unhalfbricking” and the classic “Liege & Lief”) that introduced the genre. If anything, though, Chaney’s tone is more in line with Maddy Prior, vocalist for the Fairport spinoff band Steeleye Span. She glides amid the ancient romanticism of “The Gardener” as the various Decemberists color the contours with elegiac electricity and beat. The resulting combination updates the haunting folk feel but to a vintage that stops well short of today.
Equally arresting is “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Best known as a haunting soul mediation popularized by Roberta Flack in 1971, the tune was penned by British folk singer and activist Ewan MacColl. It is presented here as a ghostly remembrance, with Chaney’s more overtly Denny-inspired singing draped by harmonium.
Decemberist chieftain Colin Meloy takes a back seat but is hardly invisible. He sings lead on a ragged, jocular version of “Blackleg Miner” (the protest tune that has made British rounds for decades, having been cut by Steeleye Span in 1970 and, more recently, Fairport co-founder Richard Thompson) and a more densely atmospheric take on Lal Waterson’s “To Make You Stay.”
Everything coalesces on “Sheepcrook.” The spirit of long-ago Fairport presents itself in a mesh of folk melancholy and ensemble psychedelia, but the power chords offer one of the few contemporary accents to “The Queen of Hearts.”
This very trippy electric folk escapade ends with 40 traditional-dance seconds of “Bobbing a Joe Wheatlay,” thus making Offa Rex one of the most unexpected — and enjoyable — stylistic and generational mash-ups of the summer.