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RAY COOPER - Tales of Love War & Death by Hanging

RAY COOPER - Tales of Love War & Death by Hanging
Westpark Music 87188

Okay.   So it is a truism that labels are for jam-jars.  The fact that it is a truism however, does not mean we should not be reminded of the wisdom of those words, every now and then.   And in case we had forgotten, along comes this album from Ray “Chopper” Cooper, to help bring home to us the inherent folly in trying to label music.

Ray Cooper will be known to many for his work as a member of what oldies like me call The Oyster Band (but these days, called just Oysterband),and this debut solo album is every bit as eclectic as anything in the band’s output.   And we get the clue from the album’s title.   For whilst it might appear on first inspection to be  a collection of songs following a tight theme, when you think about it, nearly all human existence is bound up in the words “love and war”!

And true to form, the album jumps about a bit, in terms of historical context and mood.   But guess what?  It is none the worse for that.   In fact, by my third play-through, I was rather enjoying it.

The album contains some traditional material, a modern(ish) song by a well-known American writer (more on that later), and the rest are self-penned numbers.   He accompanies himself on a dazzling array of instruments, and is joined by Patrik Andersson playing violin, viola and hardanger fiddle (this last mentioned, of course, is a Norwegian traditional instrument in the violin family), on the original recordings made by Cooper in a small log cabin in Sweden.  And Dil Davies (tom-tom), Olle Linder (percussion) and Rowan Godel (backing vocals) make up the studio assembly that provided overdubs in Brighton UK.

The trad songs fare well enough: he does a respectable job on Border Widow’s Lament and McPherson’s Rant (fans of June Tabor and The Corries would be happy with both); and his Ye Jacobites By Name treads the safe path of using the anglicised version of the Burns lyric (i.e. with Rabbie’s dialect words largely removed).

But it is his self-penned songs that impressed me the most.  The three that really shone brightest, were In Your Sweet Arms (solid lyrics by Cooper alone, but with a heck of a sweet tune, written with Alan Prosser); The Grey Goose Wing (its title, a reference to the feathered arrows used at Agincourt) with its melody containing imaginative elements of the traditional Agincourt Carol; and My Compass Points To North, a perfect vehicle for his very expressive voice, and the stand-out track on the album.

And now we come to that “other” song I mentioned earlier in the review.  Oysterband are not the only artistes who can ditch the definite article!   (What do I mean? Well, I refer to the title of this “other” song.)

I have always felt that Highwayman (not “The” Highwayman as shown in the liner notes – I once recall Jimmy Webb pointing out to someone, that he is talking about four incarnations in this song, hence him deliberately avoiding the definite article) is not the magnum opus that Jimmy Webb clearly considered it to be, at least, when he wrote it back in 1976.   I yield to nobody in my admiration for Mr Webb’s talents, but I have always felt that this song is a brave attempt that never quite comes off.

And it does not “come off” here either.   It somehow seems like it has arrived here by accident.   You see, Mr Cooper has a gift of writing songs that could easily pass for songs from the Tradition: Jimmy Webb might have hoped herefor a similar judgment, but in truth, Highwayman sounds as traditional as Galveston or Webb’s nadir, the hugely overblown MacArthur Park.

But paradoxically, what this quirky – and I think, mistaken – selection of this particular song does, is merely indicate how solid the rest of the album is.    Thus, it could be argued that the “mistake” was in reality, a very clever one!

Dai Woosnam

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This album was reviewed in Issue 86 of The Living Tradition magazine.