What does it sound like?:
‘Bright Phoebus’ is an album of fantastically idiosyncratic, compelling, uncategoriseable songs by siblings Lal and Mike Waterson, released in 1972 on legendary producer/hapless businessman Bill Leader’s label Trailer in a run of 2000, 1000 of which were faulty. Bill’s twin labels Leader and Trailer had started in 1969 and hit the buffers before the end of the 70s. I wrote about Bill and labels, in the context of the Irish music he recorded, at length here: http://theafterword.co.uk/bill-leader-the-man-who-paid-the-pipers/
He also recorded much Scottish and English music – folk club artists and ‘pure’ traditional musicians, hence the split label imprints. Mike & Lal had found a level of fame in the 60s as two of the four ‘Watersons’, sensational acapella harmony singers of traditional songs, from Hull, who burned out, curiously enough, in my home town, Belfast, in 1968, when an all-night singaround at a festival proved one burnt candle too many. The group stopped, Mike took up painting and decorating and I’ve no idea what Lal did. Perhaps, as she did in the 1966 BBC film ‘Travelling For A Living’ she just drew the curtains.
In 1971 Anne Briggs recorded Lal’s song ‘Fine Horseman’ (one of the Bright Phoebus songs) on her LP ‘The Time Has Come’, itself recently reissued by Earth, and wrote in her original back cover notes that she hoped Lal would write more. Well, she did.
While the Watersons were trad singers, ‘Bright Phoebus’ is a radical shift in comprising Mike and Lal’s own songs, with accompaniment from acoustic guitar and odd (beautifully arranged) melody instruments like oboe and cello on 7 cuts and full band on the other 5 – the band including three of the 1969 Fairport Convention (Richard T, Ashley Hutchings, Dave Mattacks). Martin Carthy’s guitar also makes telling contributions throughout. A passing postman joins the chorus in one number, ‘Danny Rose’ – Mike’s unique middle-ground between finger-in-the-year melody and Memphis rockabilly.
But this album isn’t really folk-rock. It’s unique. It’s sometimes been called British folk’s ‘Sgt Pepper’ and one can hear many reasons why – the impressionistic, observational/narrative-based songs, the Englishness, the mix of whimsicality and profundity, the odd pastiche… The carnivalesue ‘Magical Man’ is ‘Mr Kite’, ‘Rubber Band’ is a yet-more absurdist, similarly declamatory ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, ‘Winifer Odd’ is the emotional wrench of ‘She’s Leaving Home’ through the angular chord structures of post-Floyd Syd and the lyrical imagination of Ivor Cutler, ‘Shady Lady’ ticks the gently poignant singalong box of ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’. These comparisons are lightly made – but this is an album with an embarrassment of imagination, whole lyrical, impressionistic worlds to explore, emotional extremes from spine-tingling beauty to a kind of hopeless sorrow, mysticism (did I mention ‘The Scarecrow’ is ‘Within You, Without You’?), clowning, ebullience, joie de vivre and a lonely Saturday night on the booze ending up in a rain-soaked gutter in some dead end Northern Town. ‘Red Wine & Promises’ – it’s only a Northern song, but it’s a brilliant one.
I knew of this album’s reputation – and had heard maybe four of its songs in covers (June Tabor recorded a great version of ‘The Scarecrow’ in the late 70s) – but I had never heard it till Barge asked me to review it. (People seem to think I’m immersed in folk music, but really I’ve barely heard any since the 90s!)
Well, I played it. Then I played it again. And then I played it again. That should tell you something. You may need to attune your ears to Mike’s vocal hear and there – it’s a curious vibrato-ing nasal tone in places on the more rousing numbers – but the ear adjusts; and Lal was some kind of genius. (I had heard her two final albums, late blossomings or late re-entries into the fray, one sadly posthumous, on Topic – and you could tell she was a one-off. A songwriter like no other, and a voice like the essence of monochrome Rita Tushingham films and the essence of ‘The Wicker Man’ – downbeat, rough-hewn, lived-in, entrancing, otherwordly – all at once.)
What does it all *mean*?
It means that a wheel has turned. The Leader/Trailer catalogue was effectively tied up during the CD era (it’s too boring to go into). Domino have licensed this one (which is available as 1CD, 2CD with demos, or 2LP) from the estate of the man who owned it. Maybe more of the catalogue will yet appear, though – while much of it is brilliant, historically fantastic music – most of it may be too commercially risky (or commercially impossible) in the post-CD boom era to release for third-party licensors. One or two, like the 1969-70 Dransfield albums and the Nic Jones albums, may yet tunnel their way to freedom. But it’s ironic that for years the reason why the man who owned the catalogue refused to put it on CD was that he still had vinyl stock of most of it from the early 80s (thin binyl repressings of things like the Jones albums). And now ‘Bright Phoebus’ appears… on heavyweight double vinyl. And it’s in the UK charts as I type.
Goes well with…
I’ve no idea – but the current ‘Mojo’ has a good feature on it, that will aid appreciate (though no aids are really required: it lives in its own world – you can choose to enter or not, no background info is really necessary).
Might suit people who like…
The Unthanks. Here’s where it all began. But if you don’t like the Unthanks (I don’t really) don’t worry – you can still love it.