Phil Burdett’s album, “Dunfearing and the West Country High” was reviewed here earlier this year and ever since that time I’ve been waiting for the chance to sit down and have a chat with Phil about his music (and many other things). We finally managed to meet up in Leigh-on-Sea on typically miserable British Bank Holiday weekend and had a pretty expansive chat over a couple of beers. Now that’s the way to do an interview. We covered a lot of ground, so the interview is being published in parts over the next few days.
AM – So Phil, tell us a bit about how you got to be where you are now, musically and philosophically.
PB – I take it you don’t mean the bus route down here. That’s a very good opening question and I’ll do my best to answer it. Musically I would say it’s incremental; it started off with my brother when I was five years old with a guitar and my brother Mick used to have a record collection and he’d lend me his older albums and he was one of those part-time hippies in the late sixties. He went to the Isle of Wight Festival, credit for that, and he had loads and loads of folk music and blues music which was all I heard. Everyone at school was into glam rock and everything so I used to have endless school parties when I was older (obviously not when I was five; great progressive school that would have been). All I would listen to was John Fahey, John Renbourn and probably a bit of the West Coast Neil Young, Topanga County kind of people, James Taylor and those sort of things. And I thought great, this is what’s in the charts, this pop music, then I got school and it was Marc Bolan which was fabulous; I didn’t quite reject everything of my brother’s but I thought, this is what I’m meant to be listening to so I suppose in the early times it was a mixture of Marc Bolan and John Renbourn and then my brother expanded as well into other things like The Band and Van Morrison. Actually, I saw Van Morrison first, although he will tell you different, but I saw him on the Old Grey Whistle Test when he did the “Too Late to Stop Now” thing and they broadcast the whole thing live when they used to do those things, in those days, and I just thought it was music from another planet; I’d never heard anything like it. He had a string section, he had a horn section, he was doing soul music, he was doing blues music, he was doing folky stuff and I can remember a shift happened in my head and I thought ‘this is what I want to do’, and that’s when I wanted to write songs. Not so much to write songs, ‘but I want to make this noise, not to play “Caravan” or “Brown-Eyed Girl”; I want to make this noise with these people. I want to have a bunch of people like this behind me and I want to make this noise.’
AM – Was it the variety of instruments that drew you to it?
PB – It was and, in retrospect, I was quite pleased with that because it was just such an astonishing surprise sometimes you go along to a gig, and you know two numbers in what you’re going to get, whether you like it or not. I like the idea that suddenly you don’t know what’s going to happen next; this could be a folk song, he could pull an acoustic guitar out, he could pull a set of bagpipes out. It could be anything; it could be heavy metal and I loved the idea of that and people like Captain Beefheart. Frank Zappa took it to extremes but I used to love Zappa and probably all the people I’ve liked since that, I’ve liked because of that gig where you thought that anything was possible. You see it now and it flows and it seems like a very good and expansive band playing but at the time I thought that one minute it was classical music, the next minute it was folk music and that’s what I liked it was the variation that made it a whole; it hung together because of the variation. It was astonishing; I sat up after it and I just didn’t know what to do. I wanted to everything but couldn’t do anything.
AM - You mentioned a couple of the musical mavericks there; is there something in you that taps in to that?
PB – I think it all came from that Van Morrison show. Now, I slag off Van Morrison more than anyone does because I think he’s become an appalling thing, an appalling great lump of Irishman. I would rather go and see, and I don’t say this lightly, I would rather go and see a Van Morrison tribute band now than see Van Morrison because it’s the same thing essentially; I think he’s lost the plot or never had the plot and got lucky. His first four or five albums up to “Veedon Fleece” and a little bit beyond were fantastic but suddenly it all went very wrong. When he was inventive and varied, which was probably before I got in to the idea of lyrics, and that’s evolved more than the music side, he was just purely making music and making sounds for the joy of it; I think Van Morrison expresses that if I don’t care about lyrics, because he’s not the greatest lyricist in the world, it’s perfect. “Astral Weeks”, it’s errant nonsense a lot of it but you couldn’t change a word of it. What the fuck is “Veedon Fleece”? What is a Veedon Fleece? But you wouldn’t want it any other way. I’m not religious, I’m an atheist, but I believe that; I want to go and search for the Veedon Fleece when I’m hearing that, so it works. It was that combination of trust in him, you believed in what he did, and his voice, which was peerless at that time. I used to try to do the Van Morrison bit with a bit of Bob Dylan thrown in. My brother tried to get me into Bob Dylan more and I said that Van Morrison was the man, and then suddenly the thing that changed it was Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson. I heard The Band’s first album and, for no reason whatsoever, I just loved and then I realised that the reason I loved it was because of these words. It’s not the way they were being sung, although that was fabulous, it was these words and I didn’t know what they meant, but they sounded like they meant something and it was probably a combination of those things; Dylan, the Band and Van Morrison.
AM – I was going to come to this a bit later, but the first time I listened to “Dunfearing and the West Country High” I pulled the lyric booklet out and it was obvious that there were an awful lot of lyrics there.
PB – I get hell from record companies for that, especially from the people that type the lyrics out.
AM – But it was doing that and actually reading the lyrics that I realised you’re obviously a writer who is influenced by poetry as well.
PB – In a way, poetry came before lyrics because I used to like poetry before music. When I first heard music, the lyrics were part of the music, of the sound. They could have been singing anything and in some cases they were. People talk about Nick Drake, but I think Nick Drake’s a terrible lyricist. I’ll get crucified for this, but if his music and his sound wasn’t as good as it is, if musically he was someone like Donovan, then the lyrics aren’t that different; it becomes mystical because of the setting rather than the content.
AM – What struck me as well is that the lyrics on “Dunfearing…” actually repay careful listening.
PB – That’s what you want. That’s the reason I want to write short stories, I want to write books, I want to write everything, but I’m writing this music because it’s the only thing I can see, outside of opera, that’s taken seriously (not seriously enough, in my opinion) because it’s a combination of music and lyrics that would not work separately. I’m not a great lover of the idea that lyrics are poetry; I think lyrics are lyrics but they can be good lyrics. Poetry’s another thing; poetry should be able to stand alone. If you have as good a lyric as “Idiot Wind” and Bob Dylan wanted to do that as a poem, I think he would rewrite it, but he shouldn’t rewrite it; it’s got to complement the music.
AM – For the first time in years listening to a new album, I went into sixth form English Literature criticism mode.
PB – My album will be on the curriculum next year; I trust Gove.
AM – You’ve seen the review, it got that reaction because there was so much in there lyrically.
PB – Your review astonished me; my first reaction was that I thought it was a wind-up and that Phil Pavling (described in the sleevenotes as guru and benefactor) had written it or I thought I’d written it and forgotten and posted it to myself. You don’t get that often, you think ‘That’s nice, we’ll use that line for a plug or something’, but this was almost like you knew as much as I did about what was going on, which is very rare.
AM – That was just my natural reaction to the album, really. The other thing was that my wife, who wouldn’t necessarily have chosen to listen to it, being much more into disco, gave it a big thumbs up as well.
PB – My disco album will come a lot later.
And that’s end of part one, more to come very soon, when we get into punk, post-punk and post-post-punk, among other things.
There’s a bit of a buzz going on around Jim Stapley at the moment and, on the evidence of “Long Time Coming”, his debut album after over ten years as a professional musician, it’s more than just hype. He’s been highly recommended by Kenney Jones and the album has been produced by the legendary (over-used term, but justified in this case) Tony Visconti. Taking the album as a whole, it feels like a showcase for Jim’s prodigious vocal talent across a fairly wide range of styles and, in those terms it’s very effective. There’s no doubting that Jim has a great rock voice; he can do everything from heartfelt ballads to the wails of Percy Plant and it all sounds totally convincing. And he plays keyboards and guitar on the album as well.
The core band for the album is Jim, CJ Evans (drums), Tom Swann (bass), Ricky Glover (electric guitars and vocals), Johnson-Jay Mewik-Daley (electric and acoustic guitar and vocals). Tony Visconti steps in with some string arrangements and vocals while additional keyboards and horns are courtesy of Josh Phillips (Hammond) and James Arben (tenor and bass sax). Last but not least, the string quartet is Rachel Dawson, Sarah Tuke, Polly Wiltshire and Catriona Parker and Mollie Marriott, Rachel Leavesley and Jessica Morgan are the additional backing vocalists. If you think the name of the first backing singer sounds familiar, you’d be right; Mollie is the daughter of the late Steve Marriott.
The album opens with all guns blazing; “No Good Reason” has a guitar riff straight out of the 70s (or the Black Crowes) and a massive chorus underpinned by power chords and it’s followed by “Laid to Waste” which changes the mood with an acoustic guitar intro and a string quartet. “Hurricane” is a power ballad which culminates in a kitchen-sink ending, while “Heartstrings”, possibly the first single from the album, is a reflective piece with acoustic guitar, strings and harmonium supplying the backing.
“New Religion” and “My Way Home” both have a slight country tinge while “Made of Stone” moves the influences forward to the 80s with a massive chorus and a lead vocal/guitar riff duet towards the end. “My Own Worst Enemy” is another ballad with strings before three songs, “Out of Sight”, “Grey Matter” and “Breaking Out” which open with acoustic guitar intros before building up to big finishes. The final song, “Shield”, closes out the album on a low-key note with finger-picked acoustic guitar, brushed drums and cello laying the foundations.
It’s not difficult to pick out Jim Stapley’s influences on this debut album; he’s emulating some superb singers. What is astounding is that he can do it all, he sounds equally at home with the ballads and the all-out screamers and I know from musicians who have worked with him that he can do it live as well. If there’s a niche in the market for a new rock god singer (and let’s face it, most of the originals have collected their bus passes now), then he might just be the man for the job. Maybe the lyrics could move away from the standard rock themes of bad women and finding yourself, but that’s relatively unimportant compared to the superb musicianship and quality of the singing on this album.
This is a very assured debut album, packed with quality playing, singing and instrumental arrangements and should certainly get Jim Stapley’s name out to a wider public whether it’s through Radio 2 (it’s ok, it’s acceptable now) or specialist rock stations. Either way, it may have been a long time coming, but I think we can safely say he’s arrived now.
Hospitality are a three-piece, female-led band from Brooklyn and “Trouble” is their second album. This is indie, guitar pop with new wave synths and the occasional dusting of strings or an unexpected lonely and sad piano solo. The group make music that although decidedly retro, see Television and Belle and Sebastian for obvious comparisons, still sounds modern if somewhat unfashionable. If all of these ingredients sound appealing then you might just love “Trouble”, an album which has a mood and turn of phrase that suggests disappointments and bright, city afternoons but spent in slightly grubby vintage dresses accompanied only by overflowing ashtrays and a telephone.
“Nightingale” opens the album in a strident and assertive manner before positioning an airy and dreamlike slow drum and hushed percussion break that would usually appear as a middle eight and not within a track’s first minute. It’s a lovely affecting trick, gently pulling the rug out from under your feet that is repeated several times in different forms. The 10 songs here are all artfully but quietly arranged which in turn encourage repeated listens just to revisit the thrill of the surprise. Much of this is also down to lead vocalist Amber Papini’s ability to merge other-worldliness and dressed-down normality. She inhabits a world that is part Brit-pop sarcasm and smirk (Elastica, Sleeper and later entrants, The Long Blondes) occasionally mixed with the savage sheen of early Blondie.
“It’s Not Serious” sees Papini at the Neko end of haughty but she’s surrounded by a swaying and strummed soundtrack and with a chorus that however languid, is built to stick. “Inauguration” is krautrock that manages to pack so much into two minutes and nine seconds with such elegance and humour that is easy to dismiss the level of skill required to pull this off. The song is addressed to an individual called Valentino, a small thing but even the choice of name adds to the visual associations created whilst listening. One of the two ballads that close the album, “Sunship” is a glorious ode to a changed season which has a trumpet solo that the song can barely contain. Full of optimism with a massive light heart but devoid of any cheap sentimentality:
‘Out of the coats
And out of our hats
Out of the wool flying socks that
Bruised out cheeky bodies
Fingers dying our beat over the rock-shed sand
Unpack your bags
Tie up your swimming cap
And go with the creatures ’
Mood and minor key music of this shade, the type that doesn’t announce itself loudly as soon as the first hook has been established, is rarely on the radar these days. Refusing to commit to either full on guitars or machines, Hospitality fall somewhere in the middle and for them this setting, especially following on from their far less daring 2012 debut album, appears to be the perfect one. Amber Papini is a charismatic front woman who maybe isn’t as assertive and as centrally placed vocally as some of her contemporaries; she can, for example, struggle to recapture the essence of some of these songs live, but none the less she bristles with the personality that this material requires. As a band, the trio have proved that they are capable of creating music that starts small and, through the use of magical trap doors and beguiling long, twisting corridors, becomes much bigger the more it is experienced. An uncommon album, as beautiful in its low key way as it is strange – “Trouble” comes highly recommended.
“Do Tell” by Hat Fitz & Cara Robinson is an incredibly frustrating album; there are some sublime moments, but there are a couple of complete clunkers as well. Just as you’re starting to really appreciate the musicianship and vocals, along comes a song which seems to have bypassed the quality control process completely; but more about that later. Hat Fitz is an Australian blues veteran who met his wife, Cara Robinson, a soul singer who has toured with Corinne Bailey-Rae and Jamiroquai, at an event in Ireland. Since they got together, musically and romantically, they have developed a compelling live presence, with Cara supporting Fitz’s guitar and vocals with drums, washboard, fife, flute and acoustic guitar as well as providing a powerful second voice. Their recent material has moved away from traditional blues to include folkier and country elements which are all on display on “Do Tell”.
The album opens with “Friday Night”, a finger-picked acoustic blues telling the story of various characters in a bar and is delivered by Cara Robinson with more than a hint of Janis Joplin. “Stray Hat” follows, a raw country blues with a Fitz vocal and some nice harmonica; so far, so good. “Gotta Love” is the first of the low points; the slow electric slide intro builds into an all-out stomper but the combination of the over-wrought Cara Robinson vocal and the slide guitar just doesn’t work. The title song follows and it’s a slow blues balled with a descending guitar riff; it’s also a love song to a beer fridge; that’s Australians for you. “Long Black Cloud” is superb; it’s a slow blues which sounds a lot like the late Jackie Leven. If only the whole album was this good.
“Excuse Me” is a fast electric blues with a Cara Robinson lead vocal, followed by “99.9”, a blues duet with finger-picked acoustic backing with a lyrical theme of broken promises. “Sister Sister” has a more country feel with a Cara Robinson vocal and some nice flute to bring a bit of variety. That’s four good songs in a row, so guess what? “Shakedown” is a stinker; Fitz and Cara’s vocals are fighting each other in the chorus and the melodic fife hook only seems to emphasise the discordance. The final song, “Coming Home” again shows good this album could have been; it has a bluegrass feel with very tight harmonies and some nice fiddle and banjo throughout.
As a whole, it’s a bit of a roller-coaster ride; the two songs which let the album down really shouldn’t have made the cut and they devalue some of the other excellent material on the album. I wish I knew why “Gotta Love” and “Shakedown” managed to actually get on to the album, but I guess someone must have thought they deserved to be there. Ignore those two songs and it’s a very good raw country blues album.
Out May 12 on Manhaton Records.
OK, I’ll admit it; the Riot Squad are big fans of Vera Lynch. We’ve seen them live a couple of times now and it’s quite an experience. So what happens when you strip away the stagecraft and theatrics? Well the second Vera Lynch EP, “The End of the World”, answers that question. The musicianship is superb throughout the five tracks as they bounce between musical styles from the mutant funk of the opening song “Child of Jago” with its wah-wah and clean, clipped guitar sounds to the sleazy camp metal of the closer, “Dog in the Club”.
“The End of the World” starts as a slow environmental ballad before a squalling guitar signals the apocalyptic final third of the song, neatly underlining the song’s lyrical message. “Stormy Weather” combines pumping melodic bass with clipped guitar chords on the off beat and over-driven guitar to back lyrical themes of extremes of nature; you even get a reggae breakdown towards the end. “Horror Doctor” is a psychobilly/Cramps-style piece which is already a live favourite. The band sounds perfectly at ease with the various genres featured across the five tracks of this EP and the instantaneous switches from one to another.
It’s easy to see why the Vera Lynch fanbase is growing; the live performances are riveting, but there are some good songs to back up the shows with thoughtful lyrics (“Child of Jago” made me hit the search button a few times) and interesting arrangements delivered with a theatricality that’s reminiscent of the late Alex Harvey (look him up kids) at his best. It’s a clever mixture of the thought-provoking and the unhinged and it’s great fun.
You can see them live at the EP launch on May 10 in Shoreditch.
“End of the World” is out now and available from Amazon, and ITunes.
You have to wonder how Henrik Freischlader spends his spare time, or if he actually has any. Over the last twelve months, he’s released two self-produced studio albums, a four-CD live set and he’s produced albums for singer-songwriter Layla Zoe (“The Lily”) and now this album from saxophonist and singer Tommy Schneller. He also plays guitar drums and bass on “The Lily” and “Cream of the Crop” while providing the music for Tommy Schneller’s lyrics. He’s done a few tours in support of his own albums as well.
Tommy Schneller’s “Cream of the Crop” is a few steps away from Henrik’s own blues/rock material, with a much greater emphasis on influences from the early rock and pre-rock years in the playing and the arrangements, particularly the use of the three-piece horn section. This album feels a little like a Tommy Schneller showcase, demonstrating his instrumental ability as well as a gruff blues voice, both of which work well across the wide range of styles on display. The album is built around some superb arrangements (particularly for the horns) which sound authentic in each of the styles tackled. Henrik Freischlader’s guitar, bass and drums are augmented by Gregory Barrett (organ), Gary Winters (trumpet), Dieter Kuhlmann (trombone) and a cameo appearance by Moritz Fuhrhop (organ) on the opening track.
The album opens and closes with the straightforward slow blues songs, “Hands in the Air” and “You Don’t Seem to Care” which feature the quality of blues playing we’ve come to expect from Henrik. “She’s So Good to Me” and “Super Hero” are both big seventies-style tunes with classic horn arrangements by Gary Winters which wouldn’t sound out of place on any of the early Southside Johnny albums. Sandwiched between these songs is the title track, a swing pastiche with bragging lyrics which don’t really belong in the twenty-first century. “Ain’t No Maybe” and “What Did I Do” push the funk buttons quite effectively but there are three remaining songs which all stand out for different reasons. “Isn’t it New” is a great pop song complete with a perfect sing-along chorus, while the minor key “Your Somebody Else” (and that’s not a punctuation error on my part or Tommy Schneller’s) features some wonderful guitar lines in the style of Albert Collins and a breathy sax solo from Tommy. “Higher and Higher” has a funky, almost seventies disco, feel and a completely mad instrumental section with the horns having great fun ripping through several stlyes and a trucker’s gear change before leading back in to the verse.
There are some great moments on this album and I certainly want see the band live on the strength of this; the musicianship is flawless and it feels like the musicians are having fun. There are a few great moments but I think the album would be better if Tommy Schneller was looking forward rather than back and if the band were doing what they want to do rather than showing what they can do. If you like your songs served up with Hammond and horns, this is definitely worth a listen.
Out now on Cable Car Records (CCR 0311-43).