Confessed Anglophile Colin Meloy's affinity for U.K. folk music finally comes full circle on The Queen of Hearts, a meticulously crafted collaboration between the Decemberists and English folk artist Olivia Chaney. Comprising strictly traditional fare, the songs that make up Offa Rex's debut will be familiar to fans of the style, as many of their definitive versions have arrived via genre heavyweights like Anne Briggs, Martin Carthy, Shirley Collins, Ewan MacColl, Fairport Convention, and Steeleye Span. The latter two acts figure most prominently on the 11-track set, with the supremely talented Chaney channeling Sandy Denny and Maddy Prior, delivering pitch-perfect takes on seasoned tales both bucolic and brooding. Meloy and company also adopt the Span/Convention template, fleshing things out with spindly electric guitars, fiddle, and lumbering drums -- the group's take on "Blackleg Miner" hews so closely to the 1970 Steeleye version that it almost verges on karaoke. The secret weapon here is Chaney, whose excellent 2015 debut, Longest River, rightly evoked comparisons to Joni Mitchell and June Tabor. Her command impresses throughout, especially on some of the more pastoral numbers like "Old Churchyard," "Willie o' Winsbury," and the knotty Dreamboat Annie-era Heart-inspired title cut, and her presence helps to even out some of the album's more distended offerings, like the doomy psych-rock outlier "Sheepcrook and Black Dog." All nitpicking aside, Queen of Hearts is as committed a piece of retro-leaning English folk-rock as one could hope for -- there's even some Morris dance music. Meloy and Chaney's genuine love for the source material is apparent throughout, and while it may not bring anything too new to the table, it still makes for a delicious spread.
AllMusic Review by James Christopher Monger