Brave but flawed attempt to update English folk's relevance for the 21st century...
Chris White 2007
A press release accompanying The Imagined Village boldly proclaims it to be ‘arguably the most ambitious re-invention of the English folk tradition since Fairport Convention’s Liege And Lief. No pressure then, guys.
The brainchild of Afro Celt Sound System veteran Simon Emmerson, The Imagined Village certainly has a stellar cast list, with folk music luminaries Martin and Eliza Carthy joined by Billy Bragg, Paul Weller and a host of other contributors from across the British musical spectrum to create a formidable line-up of contrasting styles.
Given its world premiere at this year’s WOMAD festival, the project aims to reinterpret some of England’s most venerable folk songs by fusing old and new sounds to reflect the multicultural society of the country today. That this is a laudable and highly relevant concept is not in question, but delivering it in an authentic, coherent way represents a daunting challenge that The Imagined Village sometimes struggles to overcome.
Opening track “‘Ouses, ‘ouses, ‘ouses” features a nostalgic lament for the lost English countryside from John Copper, a member of the revered family of Sussex singers who have been performing traditional folk songs for six generations. This theme of a disappearing rural idyll seems a little incongruous on a record that is supposed to celebrate the vibrancy of England in the 21st century, yet it remains prominent throughout, the inevitable consequence of trying to transplant the lyrics of a bygone age into a contemporary musical setting.
Sometimes it works; Martin Carthy belts out a storming version of "John Barleycorn" with Weller and daughter Eliza; Bragg gives a typically heartfelt performance on “Hard Times Of Old England”, bellowing bittersweet couplets like ‘time was I could sell all I grew at the shop, when Tesco’s turned up all of that had to stop’. Unfortunately, attempts at more radical departures from the original subject matter are less successful – charismatic poet Benjamin Zephaniah’s dub-heavy “Tam Lyn” sounds like it revels in its own adventure, but Jah Wobble and Leftfield were producing similar and superior sonic landscapes over a decade ago.
A brave experiment, The Imagined Village is too often constrained rather than propelled by its sheer breadth of vision. Undeniably well-intentioned and always intriguing, it nevertheless fails to scale the lofty heights to which it clearly aspires, frequently falling victim to artificiality rather than demonstrating the organic purity its creators nobly sought to share with a new generation of listeners.