“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” is the sort of meditative song that makes you close your eyes and sink deep into bittersweet memories. The hazy vistas of time ebb and flow in some place beyond this present moment, and emotions flow up from some deep reservoir. It’s the sort of song that makes you stop a while and consider the onslaught of living, and the depth of feeling that love can inspire. You can feel the emotion from the very start:
“The first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave
To the dark and the endless skies, my love
To the dark and the endless skies”
First written by folk singer Ewan MacColl for his wife Peggy Seeger, the song has since entered the folk tradition. Offa Rex’s version on their album “The Queen of Hearts” captures both the excitement and sadness of falling in love. Hidden inside the joy of loving somebody is the pain of leaving them one day. Singer Olivia Chaney’s voice on the song waxes and wanes in that sublime beauty.
Although Offa Rex doesn’t quite capture that transcendent beauty on the rest of their debut album “The Queen of Hearts,” they do deliver an interesting take on nostalgic British folk. Offa Rex began when Chaney connected with The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy over Twitter. Meloy happened to be a big fan of Chaney’s 2015 debut, “The Longest River,” and the conversation on the social media site soon morphed into Chaney opening up for The Decemberists on a U.S. tour. It wasn’t long before they fulfilled Meloy’s wish of starting a psychedelic folk-rock band heavily influenced by the 60s, and Offa Rex was born.
On “The Queen of Hearts” Chaney takes most of the singing duties. The title song that opens up the album showcases her voice at its most haunting:
“To the queen of hearts, he’s the ace of sorrow
He’s here today, he’s gone tomorrow
Young men are plenty but sweethearts few
If my love leaves me what shall I do?”
While “Blackleg Miner” falls flat, feeling like a forced folk-rock run-through, “The Gardener” restores the atmosphere. Chaney’s voice is tender and beautiful in front of a well-balanced arrangement of guitar and strings. Though there’s not much to challenge the listener on the album’s first half, Offa Rex at least provides a pleasant blend of sound and color to accent Chaney’s pure vocal delivery.
Sometimes the stylistic shifts on “The Queen of Hearts” are a bit jarring, especially when we come to “Constant Billy (Oddington) / I’ll Go Enlist (Sherborne),” an uptempo skip through Irish folk. At nearly two minutes, I’m already glad it’s over, and when the next track begins I wonder why it even made its way onto the album. “Willie o’Winsbury,” on the other hand, simmers in aching beauty. Whenever space is given on the album for Chaney to showcase the subtleties of her voice, the record shines like a clear mountain lake in the sun.
“Willie o’Winsbury” is one of the oldest songs on the record, and Offa Rex’s arrangement shows them at their best. Acoustic bass and tasteful, reserved guitar blend nicely behind Chaney’s timbre. The seven-minute song passes like a a daydream.
Although “The Queen of Hearts” is an altogether pleasant journey through British folk, it lacks much of what I would call “psychedelic” influence. That wouldn’t be a problem if the album wasn’t touted in that way. If anything, the band hints at moving into a more experimental aesthetic, especially on the end of “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face,” as the synth begins to vibrate ecstatically toward the end.
“The Queen of Hearts” is a tame album with quite a few nice parts to it, worth listening to at least for Chaney’s outstanding voice.