Andy Smith is one third of that wonderful trio Harp And A Monkey whose metier is the songs of the Northern working classes and of army life, particularly in the Great War period. With his first solo album, An English Village, Andy has followed a similar path but gone deeper to create a sonic landscape as he guides us round the people and places. Now, I was brought up in an English village – technically a hamlet, actually – and I know and I suspect Andy knows that such an archetype never really existed. Yet there is a sense of familiarity about many of the scenes he depicts.
Andy describes An English Village as folktronica so it isn’t a history lesson. Nor are we listening to Rattlebone And Ploughjack. Andy plays every instrument, some of which he says he can’t play properly although they sound good to me, and composed all the music which is built around deceptively simple melodies and drum patterns which are probably loops. Add field recordings of birdsong and other rural sounds and it’s all rather hypnotic. Then there are the words.
The spoken words sound just like the commentary from an old Pathe newsreel and the first six tracks do nothing to dispel that illusion even though Andy has chopped them up and repeated them drum’n’bass style. I suspected sometimes that they are a clever pastiche but often they are so fatuous that they couldn’t be made up – ‘Proud Of Our Healthy Children’, for example. I remember being inoculated against smallpox and polio round about then so these words come across as official propaganda.
It’s with ‘Shenanigans Up At The Manor House’ that Andy delivers a twist. In the midst of these bucolic scenes we have what sounds like either a country house murder or the riotous goings-on of a Whitehall farce. Then there is ‘Sunday Is Church Day’ wherein the vicar calls down fire and brimstone from the pulpit. Now I was convinced that Andy had made it all up. I was wrong! These are genuine archive recordings and it must have taken an absolute age to find the right ones and assemble them.
I’m not really a fan of electronica in folk music but I do like this album. The tunes are enchanting and Andy has a delicate touch so the trickery is not overdone. An English Village has taken me back almost seventy years and stirred long-forgotten memories.
Artist’s website: https://andysin65.bandcamp.com/album/an-english-village
‘An English Village’ – official video: