Old Calf knows wordplay. The band’s name alone begs to be read at least three different ways: as a combination of founding members Ned Oldham and Matty Metcalfe’s last names, a paradoxical animal, or a metaphor for the group’s predilection for merging old with new in their music. It’s natural, then, that the band’s debut album, Borrow A Horse, which includes Michael Clem on bass and Brian Caputo on percussion, is full of similar cunning and richness.
The songs on Old Calf’s debut record Borrow A Horse are sung in lyrics borrowed from nursey rhymes and old British poetry. The album comes out April 12, and the band plays a release show on April 22 at the Southern with Sarah White and Wes Swing.
Each song on Borrow A Horse plucks a folk rhyme from centuries past, presenting it not as an excavated artifact, but as a nugget smoothed and refined by the sands of time. These lyrical gems cast a variety of hues, but all are ripe with poetic power. Opener “I Saw A Peacock with a Fiery Tale” elicits a string of fantastic, interconnected images through its clever line breaks. “When I Was Taken” imparts a simple riddle with a string of hints: “It’s I that make peace between king and king, / and many a true lover glad.” (What object does all that? A quill pen.)
Such lyrical tropes unravel to relate an almost Joycean narrative of human growth. Youthful fancy gives way to a spirit of rebellion with “Follow My Bangalorey Man” and “Do Not Play with Gypsies.” Then comes a sense of independence, both giddy (“Stool-Ball”) and pensive (“A Gift, A Ghost/Monday Alone”), and finally maturity, with the ghostly limerick “There Are Men in the Village of Erith” and the nuptial tones of “Henry Was A Worthy King.” Throughout the album the words evoke a sense of mystery and wonder, leading up to the final song’s telling question: “What did I dream? / I do not know. / The fragments fly like chaff.” But such wonder is nonetheless effective. “Yet strange my mind / Was tickled so, / I could not help but laugh,” the song continues.
Old Calf’s musical choices are just as thoughtful and fitting. Borrow A Horse draws on folk traditions from both sides of the Atlantic, echoing everything from Appalachian bluegrass and the Grateful Dead to Irish ballads and English folk rock of Fairport Convention. “Do Not Play with Gypsies” summons excitement and danger with a subtle siren-like synthesizer and a gradually rising chorus of backing vocal harmonies. When words are the sparsest, as on “Far From Home” and “What Did I Dream,” effortless psychedelic jams expand to fill the gaps. Melodies are potent, breathing fresh life and emotion into even the most archaic rhymes, especially on “Stool-Ball,” which refers to a 16th century game played by English milkmaids.
“We’ll borrow a horse, / and steal a gig / and ’round the world / we’ll do a jig,” Oldham sings on “Follow My Bangalorey Man,” and those titular lines get at the heart of the album. Call it borrowing, call it stealing, call it following their Bangalorey Man—Old Calf has joined past and present to deliver a fanciful, original and well-crafted debut that’s part journey, part dance.