The Imagined Village – Empire and Love (2010)

The Imagined Village are a concept more than a band. The idea is a reimagining of English folk song in a modern, multi-cultural setting. I’d thought that this was part of the response in the English folk movement to then BNP leader Nick Griffin’s attempt to co-opt folk song as a tool for his racist ideology, but in fact the band pre-dates what became the Folk Against Facism movement. The line up has always been dynamic, changing from album to album.

I found this a more satisfying album than Bending the Dark and I suspect that is to do with the greater involvement of Martin Carthy. For a start he brings better material for them to work with, and his brilliant and idiosyncratic guitar playing integrates very well with the electronica and the Asian instruments. Carthy is a major figure in the last 50 years of English folk, but he’s never been precious about the music that he adores and hasn’t made museum pieces of it. He’s often pared old songs down to find a new truth in them or updated them to highlight a timeless truth. So it is here with the opening song, “My Son John” which dates back to the Napoleonic wars. He takes the essence of the song – an unsympathetic, disbelieving welcome for a solider returned home from war with his legs missing – and updates it for the modern era with references to Afghanistan. Sonically the song is updated with electronica effects and taken out of an exclusively Olde English setting by Sheema Mukherjee’s sitar and Asian percussion.

It’s entirely successful and a great example of what Imagined Village aim to do.

Also prominent on this record is Chris Wood, not the flute player from Traffic but a multi-instrumentalist and considerable songwriter who is one of the most politically motivated artists currently operating in English folk. He shares with Carthy a gift for taking odd time signatures and making them sound natural and easy. He’s also a singer of some distinction.

The two combine to great effect on the best known song here – “Scarborough Fair”. You might think it sounds superficially like Simon and Garfunkel’s version, but in fact Paul Simon based that famous recording on Carthy’s own arrangement which is reprised here with subtle shifts in the timing and a masterful vocal by Wood over Carthy’s guitar.

Carthy also offers another of his most iconic songs – “Byker Hill” – again with clever timing and with effective contemporary enhancements of his arrangement.

Most of the time they rework and reinvigorate traditional songs, but there are two songs that stand out by virtue of being rather obviously more contemporary but which still fit well into the overall arc of the album. Eliza Carthy performs the song “Space Girl” which though decidedly untraditional was written by Ewan MacColl (for a stage show). Eliza’s dad delivers another star turn with a droll, slowed down and stripped down performance of the most unlikely song here – Slade’s “Cum On Feel The Noize”.

The album is full of fine singing and playing and the multi-culturalism and modern electronic effects seem to complement the essential Englishness of the songs and performances and do nothing to dilute it. Which, I think, is the point – honoring and presenting your culture doesn’t have to be an exclusive and unwelcoming business.

Not what the BNP imagined at all.

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