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DIZRAELI: Engurland (City Shanties) – 2009 – Album review

[rating: 4.5]

If you’re serious about something, if you really love it…you’ve got to be able to allow the piss to be taken out of it. Otherwise you’re a fanatic and everyone knows how those humourless bastards roll. Thus, given the overriding folk inflections to Dizraeli a.k.a. Rowan Sawday’s full-length debut, he may have to put up with Engurland (City Shanties) being referred to as ‘hippy-hop,’ by some – for this is less block party than midsummer revels. Still, if something’s good you can only take the piss for so long and this is pretty damn good. For one thing, you are unlikely to have heard anything quite like the way Engurland… takes an urban musical genre that originated in the Bronx and make it sound as English as Punch & Judy shows – although more the kind of Punch & Judy show you get in Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker than any other kind.
Homeward Bound (On The Overground) opens with the sound of waves over which echo slightly ominous close vocal harmonies. Nimble-fingered acoustic guitar picking appears and ushers in an unmistakeably hip-hop beat, scratching and vocal loops about ‘Victoria Sponges.’ It shouldn’t work but it does. In The Garden showcases Dizraeli’s ear for an almost Sergeant Pepper-era psychedelic-folk tune but then morphs almost immediately into beats and rhymes. And that’s the thing about Dizraeli. It’s not just that he has a distinctive slightly hoarse rapping voice with the ghost of a burr but that he can also carry a tune with ease – witness his range on this very song – as well as rustling up beautiful acoustic instrumentals. On the track Engurland he pulls off the feat of critically analysing UK culture (“Silly thoughts tell a stranger he’s a prick/ Receive a hit, lips and teeth are split/ But it isn’t a party unless you bleed a bit”), which performs the neat trick of using a football chant’s tune to carry the ironic chorus, retaining the infectiousness of the chant itself while rendering it melodic as opposed to drunken and thuggish. I wasn’t so keen on second single Bomb Tesco which is less the rage against the machine than a slightly wordy subverting-the-deli-counter slice of whimsy but it’s succeeded in any case by the beauty of Take Me Dancing, a ‘proper’ song with singing and everything where Dizraeli is joined on vox by the very capable Cate Ferris.
The only real misstep for me on the whole album is It Won’t Be long. I’ve come to regard this as the ‘Sting’ song and have to skip the ‘de-de-de-dah-do-dah-de’ bits (surely a moment of madness on Sawday’s part) which I can only attribute to the excessive quaffing of home-brewed scrumpy. Happily, once again it’s successor is a thing of beauty and this time it’s the acoustic guitar instrumental of Reach In which precedes what was the album’s debut single (and eulogy to old tramps), the stomping blues-riff based and really rather good Reach Out.
If this gets heard by the mainstream press no doubt lazy comparisons will be made with The Streets, though if such lazy comparisons encourage more punters to listen that will be no bad thing. A genuine original, Engurland successfully combines the urban and the rural in a way you wish town planners and architects would and quite simply for that reason alone nobody beats the Diz.
(Out now)

Listen to Dizraeli – Engurland (City Shanties)

Dizraeli – Myspace

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