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LITTLE JOHNNY ENGLAND - Tournament of Shadows

Tournament of Shadows
Talking Elephant TECD150

After over a decade together and five previous studio albums, LJE really deliver the goods with this imposingly titled set.  Instrumentally tight, the band is fronted by some of the best vocals P J Wright has ever recorded: those who follow PJ’s career will already be familiar with a couple of songs, which are here given full scale arrangements.

One is his own secular hymn of hope in troubled times, Random Acts of Kindness: the version here is a reminder that folk-rock can create nuance as well as noise.  The other is the epic narrative Lily of Barbary (the fifth version of the song I’ve heard), a tale of enslavement with a happy ending. It’s written by Pete Scrowther, whose presence hovers the album (is he the sixth LJE?): three original songs, including the title track, and a mighty hand in a trad.arr piece.

It’s an album of narrative songs (including tales of a real Lincolnshire poacher, a father-son reunion, the eternal ghost army of Afghanistan) and astute social observations (most remarkably a version of Steve Knightley’s Cutthroats Crooks and Conmen.) This being an LJE CD there is of course a madly rapid instrumental medley (a polka, a hornpipe and a reel). There are also two outstanding rock versions of traditional songs: Garland Gay is an extended variant on the Swinton May Song which among other things reclaims a verse that Richard Thompson borrowed.

The album concludes with a lengthy, sweeping and majestic version of The Plains of Waterloo. The finely crafted broken-token saga is given a setting full of space that gradually fills with menace before resolving in a fulfilled dénouement. There are far too many folk-songs with rock arrangements that do little to enhance the song: there are precious few that actually add to what already exists; LJE’s Plains Of Waterloo can rightly claim its place in that exclusive group – an impressive conclusion to a mighty album.

Nigel Schofield

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This album was reviewed in Issue 85 of The Living Tradition magazine.