“Folkmares” – Phil Burdett

5 stars (out of 5)

2

Phil Burdett; the eternal iconoclast. The most characteristic line of the album for me is ‘antagonize a purist’ from the album’s closing song “Newport Electrics”. The song, and the message, are built around Dylan’s infamous electric performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, although the intro hints at the Hendrix performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner”. It doesn’t actually typify the album; it’s twice as long as most of the songs and three times longer than some and it has a psychedelic, hippy-trippy vibe with Indian percussion and hints of Ravi Shankar’s influence. You can fill your boots checking out the Dylan references, but there’s more buried there in the story of how music constantly evolves in the line ‘the strummer’s fix is in’ – is it the frontman of The Clash or a general reference to three chords and the truth guitar players? You decide.

As always with Phil Burdett albums, you can spend all the time you have unpicking the words and looking for the references. I’m not doing it for you, but I’m just saying it might be worthwhile. Phil will argue that lyrics aren’t poetry because they rely on the music to make them work, but let’s just say they’re written in a poetic style. We can probably agree on that.

“Folkmares” came out of a difficult time for Phil; he has a work ethic that won’t allow him to stop. If he can’t write songs, he’ll paint or write poems or find some other way of creating art. What’s certain is that it won’t be boring or bland: guaranteed.

It’s a home studio recording with Phil singing, playing guitars, keys, bass, percussion and harmonica, while Steve Stott (fiddle and mandolin) and Colleen McCarthy (vocals) supply the folkier elements and a more country, string band sound. Phil’s influences are many and varied and most of them poke their heads over the parapet at some point in the album’s fifteen (yep, fifteen) songs. It’s a nod to the folk tradition that almost a third of the songs on the album are in 3/4 time, and those are some of the most poignant songs. I bet you want to know what some of the songs are about as well.

The album looks back to an earlier time in Phil’s life, not through the rose-tinted sunglasses of nostalgia, but the telephoto lens of realism, with absolutely no filters. The songs are set in either central London (Soho, Camden, you get the picture) and south-east Essex (Basildon and Canvey). The London settings have the feel of a Patrick Hamilton novel fifty years on at the start of the Thatcher era (looking forward as well in “Albion Caustic”), with scenes in pubs and an interesting array of characters. There aren’t too many happy endings either.

The Essex songs are set in a slightly earlier and maybe more innocent period, shining a bit of light on a time of life where everything seems possible yet impossible at the same time. We’ll start there for favourites. “New Factory Hand” (in ¾ time) evokes with concise phrases the stark reality of working life in the late sixties and early seventies and how we escaped from it, while the song following, “From a Van on the Coryton Road” is set just before the Thatcher era capturing the drudgery of dead-end jobs around Canvey Island and again the escape, ‘When Friday rolled by we would lead our wage packets to drink’.

I’ve already mentioned “Newport Electrics” a very personal take on the history and hypocrisy (bit of Jane Austen there, sorry) of the folk scene while “The Last March” does the same for the march and demo movement of the mid-eighties and the ‘I was there’ pose. You could update it for 2020 and call it “The Last Petition”. While we’re with the stupid ideas, the busker’s anthem “Flatpicking Sorrows on Borrowed Guitars” could be filmed by Wim Wenders as “The Busker’s Hatred of Brown-Eyed Girl”. Just sayin’.

What else? The packaging of course. Phil likes to include a lyric booklet and this time the photography (by Steve Stott and Rob Shaw) and the design, layout and graphics (by Steve Stott) combine to create a perfect setting for the lyrics. Bloody good job all round, I say from the Southend massive and a namecheck for John Bulley because I don’t want to leave him out.

While we’re all going stir-crazy, why don’t you treat yourself to a big helping of lyrics that will actually make your brain work and some really interesting musical settings.

“Folkmares” is out now and it’s available here. You won’t spend a better tenner before the lockdown ends.

 

Bit of a video taster before you go? Thought so: