It’s been a little while since we were treated to a new album from Jackie Oates. She’s been part of some stellar collaborations over the last few years (I’m still listening to Needle Pin, Needle Pin, her collaboration with John Spiers, on a weekly basis) but her solo studio output has been absent since 2018. No more though! This latest release, Gracious Wings, has soared in to fill a little record-shaped hole that I didn’t even know was there.
That’s not to say this isn’t a collaborative effort – quite the opposite. Oates has assembled an absolutely crack team of musicians, including Imagined Village bandmate Simon Emerson and Wings partner Meghan Henwood amongst others, who join her in various combinations throughout the 11 tracks. There’s no doubt about who is leading the way though – her soothing voice and lyrical fiddle are the threads that weave the album together (and I used the metaphor advisedly, given her additional crafting skillset). It’s more like she’s come up with a really brilliant big band and has then had the good sense not to let them all storm the stage for every number.
When the album was announced, Tradfolk spoke to Jackie Oates about the project, and we were promised an album of stories. Gracious Wings has delivered a nest full of them, but something a bit more than that, too – I defy you to listen and not hear a bit of your story within one of these tales, reflected back like as if by a shard of vintage mirror.
With a mix of traditional music, originals, and covers, it’s not just the instrumentation that get a bit of a shake-up. There were a few tracks that really stood out for me (the ones that I’m humming insistently around the office…). The opening number, ‘When I Was A Fair Maid’, is a version of the traditional song, ‘The Female Drummer’ [Roud 226], and Oates is ably accompanied here by a group of expert pluckers, in the form of Jon Wilks (guitar), John Parker (Double Bass) and Richard Evans (mandolin), adding a good helping of bounce to the delightful tale of a determined young lady and her army escapades. It’s also a nice example of a folk song with a happy ending (as long as you count a woman being told she can’t do a job by a man as a happy ending – it’s all relative, I suppose).
‘La Llorona’, which has been available as a little album teaser for a while, is reminiscent of the EP Wings, with Jackie Oates and Meghan Henwood really utilising their well-matched voices and beautiful vocal harmonies to tell its tragic tale; timeless apart from it’s two blue lines. You’ll hear it all in the song, enunciated almost devastatingly clearly, but it’s worth reading the lyrics to discover that, over the Atlantic from ‘The Cruel Mother‘, other mythical forces are at play with similar consequences.
On a (sort of) cheerier note, ‘Looking For My Own Lone Ranger’ was probably the most unexpected “aww moment” on the album, once again pairing Oates’ and Henwood’s voices to great effect. Who doesn’t need a little bit of cowboy love and longing in their life?
And there’s just time here for a quick, honourable mention of John Spiers, who appears in not only his usual guise of most-in-demand-melodeonist-we-know, but also lending some very sweet vocals to the Basque wool-spinning song, ‘Iruten Ari Nuzu.’ Lovely work all round.
Gracious Wings is an eclectic mix of songs (and one not-a-song) featuring some really sensitive and careful performances. I particularly enjoyed how, on the first listen, some for the songs were genuinely unexpected, yet on the third or fourth repeat, it was clear that each song absolutely had its place in the mix. If you’re especially keen on albums that are either super traditional or wholly groundbreaking and original, this one probably won’t be for you. If you think you might enjoy about 50 minutes of really well-delivered music, some of which you might recognise, all performed by superb musicians and spearheaded by one of the loveliest voices in folk, then I recommend Gracious Wings to you wholeheartedly.
Gracious Wings by Jackie Oates is released on September 2nd. It can be pre-ordered from the artist’s Bandcamp page.