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11 mai 2008

Impressions of England

I'm writing this on the May Day bank holiday, with birds singing outside, probably in terror as the cat Nelson is on the prowl, searching for some luckless fledgling to kill and devour on our doorstep. He will then roll on his back, wave his legs in the air and look cute, expecting to be congratulated on his brutality. Tennyson knew what he was about when he wrote of nature red in tooth and claw. Serial killing aside, it has been the most beautiful of springs. You'll probably riposte that it has been mostly wet and cold but that's my point. The weather seems to have slowed down spring. Most years the season seems to pass in a flash, before you have properly appreciated it. This year it has taken its time. The primroses in the lanes of Dorset lasted for many weeks. Here in suburban Surrey the magnolias weren't blasted by frost or storms, the apple and cherry blossom are still on the trees, while the bluebells have just reached their almost purple haze of glory.


As well as listening to Denny and Fairport Convention these past weeks, I've also discovered that the English folk tradition has recently received an invigorating shot in the arm. The Imagined Village, released at the end of last year, is the most ambitious and engaging reinvention of folk since Liege and Lief.

Spearheaded by Simon Emmerson and featuring such artists as the Copper family from Sussex -- who have been singing traditional songs for the past five generations -- Martin and Eliza Carthy, Paul Weller, Billy Bragg, Trans-Global Underground, Sheila Chandra and the folktronica group Tunng, the album marries the English folk tradition to dub, electronica, modern dance rhythms and exotic world music.

The effect is haunting and hypnotic, with Benjamin Zephaniah delivering a brilliant reworking of 'Tam Lyn', and John Copper remembering his old grandfather on the wonderfully atmospheric opening track, ' 'Ouses, 'Ouses 'Ouses'. It describes the loss of the countryside his granddad ploughed as a boy, combining traditional folk and modern beats with the sounds of police cars and helicopters.

This is an explicitly English (rather than British) album, and one that tries to connect the England of the past with our complex, multicultural society today. English accents are joined with black and Asian voices, violins combine with the sitar and the synthesiser. All of this might be merely worthy if the tunes weren't so strong and the performances so full of passion, charm, wit and invention. The Imagined Village, in fact, strikes me as a brilliantly inventive modern classic, recycling old tunes and old stories to create a vivid impression of England past, present and future.

For those with adventurous ears, it is a disc I cannot recommend too highly.

By Spencer, Charles

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