Shaky Path to ArcadiaEvery time I hear some delusional, no-talent wannabe on a TV talent show (not often, I admit) it should make me despair for music in the twenty-first century. The reason it doesn’t is that I know about people like Phil Burdett, a genuine visionary who’s about as far as it’s possible to get from the epicentre of what masquerades as the music business today. When I interviewed Phil about eighteen months ago in downtown Leigh-on-Sea, he told me that he was working an album to follow “Dunfearing and the West Country High” as the second part of the “Secular Mystic Trilogy”. Not only that but he was also working on another trilogy that would begin with “Humble Ardour Refrains”. So, on a budget of threepence-halfpenny and some lollipop sticks, he’s recorded two albums for Drumfire Records with some fabulous musicians from the Southend and Canvey area (more about the musicians later) and he’s releasing both of them at the same time.

“Shaky Path to Arcadia” carries on where its predecessor left off, looking west towards the USA from Cornwall, but it’s a metaphorical and musical destination and it’s not the only direction the album goes in, geographically or temporally, before returning to Cornwall to complete the cycle. Without slipping in to ‘sixth-form-literary-criticism’ mode, I’m going to say that there’s a lot going on lyrically and the deeper you dig, the more precious stones you’ll unearth. The lyrics are strewn with references to American music and culture; there’s no mistaking the reference point for “Christmas in Casablanca”, but elsewhere there are references to Joe Hill, Billie Holiday, Dylan, Little Richard and many, many more. There are Dadaist references, travel references (trains, boats and buses and almost a plane) and if you look really closely, a lot of references to Basildon. There’s a lot of autobiography in there, but you need to know where and how to look.

Even without the lyrical content, you could listen to the album and be enthralled by Phil’s rich, powerful vocals and the performances of the band over a wide range of styles. From the mainly acoustic opening song, “Returning to Earth” to the counterpoint vocals in the coda of the album’s closer “I Dreamed I Saw Carl Wilson Last Night”, the band sounds superb. It’s ensemble playing at its finest; particularly on “Hellbound & Innocent” where a melodic bass line from Russ Strothard, an insanely catchy clipped John Bennett guitar hook and Jack Corder’s drums recreate the clickety-clack of the train on the track to perfection. Dee Hunter’s piano is the perfect foil for Phil’s voice on the haunting “Christmas in Casablanca” while Steve Stott’s fiddle on “Come Out Without a Hat (It’s Bound to Rain)” and “New Greyhound Rag” give an authentic country/bluegrass feel to the songs. And let’s not forget Colleen McCarthy’s lovely backing vocals and producer Mark Elliott’s esoteric samples.

“Shaky Path to Arcadia” is an example of how good an album can be when it’s put together by people who love what they do and they do it very, very well. Put the players together with another superb set of songs from the polymath poet of Westcliff-on-Sea and you’ve got a very fine album indeed. Any proper record collection should have some Phil Burdett in it and this is as good a place as any to start. “Humble Ardour Refrains” coming soon.

“Shaky Path to Arcadia” and “Humble Ardour Refrains” are both available to pre-order now from Drumfire Records.

Sisters titleThere’s a lot to like about this first studio piece from Mama Moonshine, certainly enough to hint at interesting possibilities for the future. But, first things first, the band members are: Ruth Armitt (vocals), Phil Taylor (guitars), AB Benson (bass) and Mark Buckwell (drums) and they’ve been playing around London for a while now, building up a live following and “Sisters” is the first single.

We’re eased in to the song with a languid bass riff and some clipped, toppy funk guitar before Ruth Armitt makes an appearance with a very distinctive voice which is part Billie Holiday and part Carleen Anderson; it certainly got my attention immediately. The theme of the song is growing up, moving on and finding new friends and the lyrics work well with the melody and the band’s sound, but there’s something that doesn’t quite work.

It feels like the band have tried to cram several styles all of their dynamics into one three-minute song and the effect is a bit like cramming a three hundred page novel into two paragraphs. In the second half of the song there’s a series of two-bar passages where the instruments drop in and out which, for me, doesn’t really work at all. It feels a bit like an attempt to cram in a little bit of everything into three minutes when the song might have been better served by simplifying the arrangement or stretching things out a little to extend the song and escape the claustrophobic feel that the series of sudden changes in dynamics and arrangement create.

I’m certainly not saying it’s a bad song, but I think it needs a little more room to breathe than it’s allowed here.

Available now on Soundcloud.

Product DetailsThis album has been out for a while and it’s taken us a few months to get round to reviewing it; I can only apologise.  I hadn’t heard of Natalie Duncan before her appearance on “Later” although, to be fair, I don’t think Matt Bellamy had either and he caught on fairly quickly.  So, let’s make amends for missing out originally.

I’m sure I’ve said this before, but I love albums that cut to the chase and start with a track that features the power of the songs, the arrangements, the playing and the vocals.  The opener “Devil in Me” does all of that and more; a stunning a cappella intro showcases Natalie Duncan’s fabulous voice leading in to a song in 3/4 time which features classical guitar and traditional brass band instruments; how often do you hear a euphonium on a soul song?

This is an album that keeps you guessing; you never know what’s around the next corner musically or lyrically and even the production styles vary hugely across the album from the fairly straight soul of the title track through the country-folk styling of “Songbird” and the dub reggae feel of “Pick Me Up Bar” to the aggressive dissonance of “She Done Died”.  Lyrically, the first four songs on the album are in fairly standard territory for a downbeat soul chanteuse, but after “Sky is Falling”, the mood darkens with the intimations of mortality and irrelevance in “Old Rock” before moving into failed panaceas (“Pick Me Up Bar”), rootlessness (“Find Me a Home”) and failing relationships (“Flower”). And that’s before you get to the cocktail of sex, drugs, alcohol, love and betrayal of the powerful, emotionally-charged “She Done Died”.

Throughout the album, it’s impossible to fault the quality of the singing, the playing, the arrangements and the production.  The only small fault with the album is that, for me, some of the lyrics would benefit from a bit of extra polishing.  I know I can’t just say that without giving you an example, so how about “little man sat in the corner” from “Old Rock”.  There’s no reason for not using “sitting” rather than “sat” in that line; it fits in just as well with the melody and, for all of us grouchy old pedants, it’s  grammatically correct.  Apart from the slight doubts about the odd lyric, this is an incredibly polished, accomplished and moving album and the best debut album I’ve heard this year; Natalie Duncan is a name that you’ll be hearing for a long time to come.

It’s not just about the quality and variety either; there are 14 tracks on the album and they’re all worth listening to.  Approach this album with an open mind and you’ll find a unique talent drawing in influences from jazz, soul, blues, reggae and many other musical styles to create something that is totally Natalie Duncan.  It’s more Jill Scott than Alicia Keys, more Angie Stone than Joss Stone and much more Billie Holiday than Ella Fitzgerald; you won’t ever regret listening to this one.