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Simply English

Gerald Porter: Birds of Paradise (review)

April 18, 2004


(English Dance and Song)

This is the fourth recording of the Hungary-based group who, as their name suggests, perform only English music, in resistance to what the sleeveliner calls “a world saturated with Celtic music, imagined or real”. They appear here in a new line-up, with guitarist Bulcsú Babarci and multi-instrumentalist Tamás Zajzon, who also regularly lurks in Celtic habitats. However, the founder and tireless proponent of English music remains Andy Rouse, and his own arrangement of ’Alison Gross’ opens the CD. Many of the songs are standards (‘Gaol Song’, The Trees They Do Grow High’), but the band is musically inventive: from the finger-snapping that opens ‘Alison Gross’ to the snap of the Hungarian udu in ‘The Ploughman’ and the tuba in ‘The Frog and the Mouse,’these are entirely fresh interpretations. Rouse’s voice has a considerable range that often surprises: ‘Banks of Green Willow,’ in particular, is astonishingly atmospheric. Not all the songs are traditional – Tom Lewis’s ‘The Last Shanty’ gets a treatment appropriate to a country that is entirely landbound, while Leon Rosselson’s ‘Neighbour’s Cat’ manages to stir up more class revenge than Long Lankin himself. The musicians in the new lineup already work well together, and every track is a kind of dialogue, often working against the grain: Bulcsú groans ‘Thank God’ as Rosselson’s particularly tortuous lyrics come to an end. In short, the album succeeds in re-inventing English folk music for an audience that may have no experience of it. One final point: as Rouse cheerfully admits, this is not an album for the politically correct – domestic violence, up to and including  murder (‘Marrowbones’, ‘On Monday Morning’), has always been an aspect of English folksong, and Simply English once regaled a feminist conference (on request) with a programme of women-baiting songs. However, it is hard to justify their preserving in performance this line from an eighteenth century broadside: ‘she was as hard as a Jew or a Turk’ (‘Cobler’s End’).

The lyrics and contact details are all given on the band’s website.

Gerald Porter


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