The Imagined Village, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Wednesday 03 February 2010
The Imagined Village's first album was more like a sprawling musical metropolis. A group of musicians took traditional folk songs, rewrote and re-arranged them, mixing in modern references plus electronic and world-music influences. The aim was that this musical village would reflect the multiculturalism of modern-day Britain. The core of this collective was father-daughter duo and folk favourites Martin and Eliza Carthy, with Simon Emmerson (of other folk-fusion success Afro Celt Sound System) and Chris Wood, but the album was laden with guest appearances by everyone from Benjamin Zephaniah to Paul Weller too.
For their new album, Empire & Love, and promotional tour, the band has tightened up. While they're still a big group, and their sound still reflects that multicultural vibe (there are laptops alongside mandolins; sitars as well as double bass), their blending of traditional folk with contemporary influences feels more solid and coherent. They're a group of highly skilled musicians from a variety of backgrounds, yet there's a musical sensitivity and generosity on display here that ensures, for example, that a sitar (played by the incredibly talented Sheema Mukherjee) never sounds shoe-horned in for exotic effect. The electronic beats which accompany most tracks function like another instrument rather than being plastered on as way to make it "hip". On "John Barleycorn", classic folk is enlivened by thrumming bass and crashing beats, but they could come from the two live percussionists or electronic sources – neither is privileged.
While the vibrant new arrangement of classic songs works well, the re- writing of lyrics can feel a little cloying; in "My Son John" cannonballs get replaced lyrically by cluster bombs, while a Billy Bragg arrangement of "Hard Times of Old England" whines about Tesco and holiday cottages. And at times their formula – which is certainly successful (who knew sitar and fiddle sonically suit each other so perfectly?) – can feel a little one-size-fits-all. The concert is enlivened by occasional departures: a performance of Ewan MacColl's "Space Girl" showcases Eliza Carthy's dusky, soul-diva vocal talents alongside some suitably whizzy flying-saucer noises on the theremin, and her later duet with Jackie Oates was unashamedly trad, but also rather beautiful in its simplicity.
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