2018 was a bit of a year, really. There was a strong showing in the first few months of the year and it felt like the early albums would be difficult to beat. Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy or the fact that, for one reason or another, I wasn’t able to review too many albums in the latter part of the year but the early albums were very difficult to beat. I’m only featuring albums that I reviewed here, so great pieces of work like the magnificent Stone Foundation album “Everybody, Anyone” doesn’t get a mention. Oops, it just did. Anyway, as always in no particular order, here are my five favourite albums of the year.

“Southern Wind” – Dean Owens & Will Kimbrough

I’ve been a fan of Dean Owens since my introduction to “New York Hummingbird” six years ago. Dean’s a consistently great performer whose songs cleverly combine universal themes like love and loss with a particularly Scottish outlook. Over the last few years he’s been increasingly involved in collaborations (with Amy Geddes as Redwood Mountain and the upcoming Buffalo Blood album with Neilson Hubbard and Joshua Britt) and “Southern Wind” was a joint project with the superb and in-demand guitarist Will Kimbrough. The album is a classic; there’s no filler and lots of killer and you can clearly hear the influence of the wonderful Ronnie Lane, particularly in “Last Song”. I wasn’t going to single any particular song out, so how come that just happened. It’s a meeting in the mid-Atlantic between Leith and Nashville and it’s a Thing of Beauty.

Here’s the original review.

“Psychopastoral” – Phil Burdett

Coincidentally, I first met Phil Burdett on the same night I met Dean for the first time (this stuff isn’t just thrown together, you know) and they’ve both had very different journeys since then. If I had to pick one word for Phil’s attitude to his music, it’s uncompromising, and I mean that in a very, very good way. His back catalogue is all worth checking out, but his latest project “Psychopastoral” is something else. It’s a song cycle which tells the story of the journey home spread out over 24 hours. Sounds simple? This Phil Burdett. The songs are linked by spoken-word interludes and (courtesy of Lyndon ‘Songdog’ Morgan) and musical fragments created mainly by Senor ‘Al’ Franklinos. I know, it sounds like it could be a bit pretentious, as I said, this is Phil Burdett; it works perfectly. And Phil’s gone one step further than Pink Floyd by making the whole project one massive track nearly an hour long to force listeners to hear the project the way it was intended to be heard. Didn’t think I’d ever write a sentence with Phil Burdett and Pink Floyd in it.

Here’s the original review.

“Out from Under” – Michael McDermott

We can link this back to Dean Owens as well, because Will Kimbrough plays on this, as he does on a lot of Michael’s recent material. Told you he was in demand. The title song is big in an E Street Band style and, let’s face it, Michael will always get those Springsteen/Dylan comparisons and for all the right reasons. He’s a superb songwriter who understands the American songbook and its highways and byways and isn’t afraid to take a trip down any one of them. The album shifts seamlessly from the pathos of “This World Will Break Your Heart” to the joyful Motown exuberance of “Rubber Band Ring”. I said back in May that I hadn’t heard a better album this year and I stand by that now.

Here’s the original review.

“Anger Management” – Gerry Spehar

I loved Gerry Spehar’s previous album “I hold Gravity”. He’s a natural songwriter with a gift for a telling image. So just combine that gift with an exploration of the state of modern America following the election of Kurious Oranj. It’s political in less direct ways as well; “Bitch Heaven” digs into the story of Woody Guthrie’s campaign against Trump Senior and the Beach Haven property, while “Son of an Immigrant” double-underlines the blindingly obvious truth that the vast majority of Americans are immigrants if you go back far enough, including the current occupant of the White House. It’s an angry album, but Gerry is managing the anger by diverting it into creative channels. This is an important album and we should all listen to it.

Here’s the original review.

“Out Past the Wires” – Rod Picott

OK, quantity isn’t everything, but Rod Picott defied the current trend for shorter albums and EPs by releasing a double album (twenty-two songs in total). If you have the material and it’s good enough, get it out there. It’s good enough, it’s more than good enough. Will Kimbrough plays on it and also Neilson Hubbard (notice a theme here) but it’s not just about the playing arrangements, it’s also about the stories and that’s what Rod Picott is really good at. In fact, the stories are so important that Rod’s also publishing a book following the lives of some of the characters appearing in the songs and that should really be worth reading.

Here’s the original review.

 

John Bulley, Steve Stott & Phil Burdett

When I get a message inviting me to visit the Railway in Southend to interview Phil Burdett, there’s only one possible response – when do I have to get there? Well, it was a mid-July Friday afternoon and the interview was livened up by the presence of Steve Stott, superb fiddle and mandolin player with Phil’s ever-evolving band. As always where Phil Burdett’s involved, it was interesting and sometimes controversial. I’ve left out some stuff to protect the innocent and the guilty – sorry Phil. Anyway, here’s how it went.

Allan – To start on familiar territory, with the last album, “Psychopastoral”, the thing that immediately struck me was releasing it as one continuous track, which gets round the whole iTunes download thing about single tracks or whole albums.

Phil – I’m sure they’re quaking in their boots at iTunes, it is a little victory but it’s the best I can hope for these days; Pyrrhic victories. I crave more Pyrrhic victories.

Allan – It took me a while to get this while I listened to it on my trusty old media player on continuous cycle as it went from the end straight back to the beginning, that the album was a cycle from the early morning to early morning a day later. I said at the time that I thought it was an outstanding piece of work, as good as anything you’ve done, I think.

Phil – I must admit, I was surprised, in the sense that it was different from what I used to do and I thought I’m either going to get some new people who like it and hate everything I’ve ever done or just everyone will hate it. You get so involved with it and you think you’re creating Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” and someone tells you ‘This doesn’t make any sense at all. What are you doing? You’ve lost your mind.’ It was pleasing that some people that liked what I do liked it and also some people some that haven’t particularly liked what I’ve done before seem to like it as well.

Steve – There’s probably some of the style that you used to do still remaining but combined with what you’re feeling now, so it covers both ends.

Phil – It’s like Tom Waits, but not quite such a radical change (that’s the next album). He lost a lot of his old fans who said ‘I liked him when he was drunk and living in a dodgy hotel and being a sort of dharma bum’, but you get bored with it. You can come up with many artistic reasons ‘I decided to embrace the idea of a concept album, in my late fifties…’, but basically you’re bored and I couldn’t get into music after the operation and the stuff I went through there. I started playing and did a couple of gigs and I felt like a Phil Burdett tribute act and I thought ‘What am I doing this for? I’m trying to write more songs like this.’ If you’re trying to write something don’t do it. So I thought let’s do something I can’t do, so we’re doing a film now.

I’ve got to do a film soundtrack; there will be songs, and that’s made me and write the songs because I think I need a song here to go over this bit of film.

Steve – There are some great songs, actually, from the demos I’ve heard.

Phil – Thank you. I hope you’ve got that on tape.

Allan – When we were chatting earlier, you were saying something the film being a bridge between “Psychopastoral” and the next album.

Phil – It is; there’s a lot of stuff I wrote in the hospital; morphine is a wonderful thing. I read it back when I sobered up and I thought I have no idea what this man is talking about, then it started making sense gradually and I realised that a lot of it followed on from what I did on the last album but I didn’t want it to be the middle album before I get really depressing with the hospital songs. I thought it wold be nice if it had some other element to it, so I thought ‘Let’s make a film!’  And directly, I thought there was no way I could make a film with on no money, no budget and no actors

Steve – Not strictly true…

Phil – So we are, and the fact that it’s actually happening is what’s keeping me going because even the prospect of doing the bunch of songs I had written felt like ‘Here we go again’ but this will spark it off and it’s also got a visual element to it, which I like the idea of. It’s not a series of music videos joined together, but you know The The did that film, I want it to have that sort of feel to it, but there’s a bit more drama involved (with a small d). We’re not talking “Apocalypse Now”, we couldn’t afford the helicopters…

Allan – And this is not the only film you’ve been involved with recently, is it?

Phil – No, I’m a regular luvvie now. ‘Just in between films, dahling’. It’s a documentary about growing up in Basildon. It was initially about brutalist architecture but it seemed to evolve when the director met a lot of artists from Basildon and they were all so different but they all had a similar theme of a love/hate relationship with Basildon so it was about that; it was good fun. He let me witter on then edited it down to something that was almost coherent, so I was quite pleased with that.

Steve – The people the film’s about, or featured in the film, have all left Basildon, haven’t they? There’s not a single one actually lives in Basildon now.

Phil – Which was hilarious. A lot of the Irish diaspora sing “From Clare to Here” and “Off to Dublin in the Green” but they’re all in Finsbury Park now. ‘We all love it but we’re not going back there. Fuck that.’

Allan – As an ex-pat Scot I completely get that. So, without giving too much away in terms of plot, what’s the story with the film?

Phil – Well the “Psychopastoral” album was basically, the narrative throughout was called ‘the long walk home’ and it’s an idea that I’ve discovered that many of the people I like, in music and literature and poetry, were always disappearing into the wilderness looking for something and what they were looking for was somewhere they could go home and that was the vague idea. A lot of them went to nature; it was based around William Blake, John Clare and Arthur Rimbaud. They all disappeared to derange their senses and they all found out they were miles from home: ‘I don’t feel at home and that’s what I wanted in the first place. I wanted to feel something.’ That’s the idea of that album and going through my traumas, I thought ‘They were all walking’.

John Clare famously walked from High Beach to Helpston; he walked from this lunatic asylum, going home to what he thought was his wife, but was actually his mistress, who had actually died anyway so it was an exercise in the definition of futility. I used him as the central character and Blake was another one who didn’t actually wander, but he wandered in his head. He was seeking angels in the trees; he was a cockney mystic, like the Russell Brand of his day. They were people who had ideas beyond their station and then realised that they wanted to get back to their station. It was the idea of comfort without being comfortable and when you derange your senses there is a sense that nothing makes sense and that can be liberating but, after a while, it becomes just derangement.

Rimbaud gave up altogether and became a gun-runner, Blake started to write about Heaven-knows-what and Clare lost his mind. He thought he was Shakespeare, he thought he was a boxer at one point. So I thought the halfway house of madness is fine because you get the little insights. When that’s happening, that’s great, but once you’re in an asylum and you’re thinking you’re Shakespeare, that’s really not useful as an artist.

Brian Wilson’s an example. Everyone thought ‘How on earth did he write “Good Vibrations”?’ Look at the stuff he wrote once he reached his destination and it’s like a five-year-old writing; wonderfully produced and interesting, but still like a five-year-old. I wanted to avoid that, so while I was in the hospital I wrote all this really depressing stuff because I thought everything was coming to an end but when I came out, I thought it’s not coming to an end but I couldn’t think in the same way as I did.

 I thought it was a continuation. I’d lost a leg; Rimbaud lost a leg; Captain Ahab lost a leg searching for something and I grabbed the idea of the long walk home without a leg. That’s basically what this is all about. The further out you get, through drink, drugs, mysticism, anything, the less able you are to communicate it to people because they just think you’ve gone mad. But there’s a point just before it ends, before you do go mad, where it’s really interesting and that’s point I’m trying to hold on to in this film. And then it descends into depression and madness which is what the really interesting third album of the trilogy is about, but we’ll get to that later. I want to make it sound like Steely Dan actually because that’s the only way it’s gonna sell anything, either that or “Berlin” by Lou Reed, which I love, but it’s unlistenable to most people. This will make “Berlin” sound like Five Star

Allan– Looking beyond that, have you got any more plans for live stuff coming up?

Phil – It’s a bit tricky. I’ve lost all my mojo, although I don’t know what a Mojo is apart from a middle-class magazine for people who still like Crosby, Stills and Nash, but I don’t know. I’d like to do it but I want to have a point to it. It’s the same way I feel about the writing; I don’t want to do all this differently and feel I’ve changed my approach and then think ‘Oh, we’ll go and do some gigs’.

I’m having some poetry published at the end of the year and I’d like to include some of that in it because there’s a lot more poetry on the album. I wouldn’t mind dipping my toe in the water by doing stuff with Steve. We did a thing in a church, didn’t we?

Steve – Yeah, St Paul’s church. That was beautiful actually; it was purely acoustic, just a selection of songs that suited the venue. I suppose it was a kind of folky thing.

Phil – It was. I’d like to do that with some poetry, just to see if I can read the poetry. There’s a couple of poetry evenings here where you can just get up and read.

Steve – I think the other thing is to enjoy doing it rather than have the pressure of putting on a big gig and inviting lots of people.

Phil – When we planned to do the album launch gig, I got to the rehearsal and then thought ‘What the fuck am I doing?’. If it had all been rehearsed without me there, I might have been able to turn up and sing it but I was just sitting there thinking that I wanted to do something else, I didn’t want to be sitting there churning out this stuff. It felt it important that the whole process changed, and what I don’t want to do is just get back to ‘let’s do a gig then. All the creativity has stopped, let’s go and regurgitate it live with some feedback.’

Steve – We were doing gigs to promote the albums that we all produced, so the was the reason for the gigs.

Phil – And that’s why they’re all platinum sellers…

Steve – So the question is, do we really need to do that?

Phil – The Leigh Folk Festival, I’d like to do something there next year; not just for ‘Oh, Phil’s singing again and he’s got one leg. Oh, well done, Phil.’ Unless I have my head chopped off, I can fuckin’ sing; Ella Fitzgerald managed and I’m a better singer than she is. (Followed by a loud cackle).

Allan – I suppose the thing is, whatever you decide to do, you’ve got a great bunch of musicians working with you.

Phil – I have, just don’t tell my band. No, it’s true; I’m really appreciative of the musicians I’ve been able to talk into doing stuff for nothing because it would have been very difficult otherwise. I don’t like having a regular band. I used to but now I feel like everything we do something it’s a new band almost because we evolve with this particular bunch, except the drummers…

Allan – That’s all a bit Spinal Tap isn’t it?

Steve – I don’t even know if I’ll be on the next album…

Phil – You are, but you’re playing drums. Just don’t get the drummer’s job, because then you know you’re out. No, it is a bit Spinal Tap with the drummers. The last one did actually spontaneously combust.

Allan – I suppose, Steve, you’ve got double the chance of staying in the band, playing two instruments.

Phil – He sneaks in with a false nose and moustache. ’I’ve found a new fiddle player – fuck it’s Stott’

Steve – I try to make myself as indispensable as possible.

Phil – He does; he’s currently learning the oboe. It’s great; I’m getting in touch now because I’ve got these demos for the soundtrack of the film, so I’m going to send them the stuff and we’ll get together at some point and we’ll go and record. We’ll record it at Senor Al’s (Al Franklinos) because it’s my favourite place at the moment.

Steve – It ties in very nicely with “Psychopastoral” because of the park…

Phil – Well, the songs are very different from “Psychopastoral”, so I would like it to have some continuity and that will come from whatever Al does.

Steve – And it’s the location in Peckham, where Blake’s tree is, so there’s a catharsis there.

Phil – I’d like to point out that he used the word catharsis there. Always avoid the words journey and catharsis.

Allan – And what about some of the other collaborators on “Psychopastoral”?

Phil – One of the linking voices throughout this three-album thing will be Lyndon Morgans (Songdog) who did the narration for the album (“Psychopastoral”) and he’s going to do the narration for the film, the subsequent album and the album after that, so I’m really pleased about that. He’s an old Welsh wanderer, a Celtic wanderer and I need his Richard Burton-like authority. I’ll be making him read stuff he doesn’t understand for the next two albums.

Allan – I must admit, those links on “Psychopastoral” worked really well. His voice is fabulous for those.

Phil – It was the thing I was worried about because it was the thing that was going to make it different in a way and with my zero knowledge of arrangement of the quasi-classical stuff that’s going on in the background, it was either going to be great or it was going to be shit; there is no middle-ground. And it was almost great…

Allan – And is there anything else to throw in before we wrap it up?

Phil – There’s my collection of reggae covers… I’m looking forward, in a way, to finishing this trilogy because I don’t know what I’m going to do after that, and I never felt like that. It was always just ‘Here’s another bunch of songs that I like, I’ll record them with musicians I like and we’ll put it out and some people will like it and some won’t and then we’ll do the Leigh Folk Festival, then we’ll do this, then we’ll play The Railway’. That’s not going to happen, so I’m really interested in what I want to do after that.

Steve – I think we ought to base that on whatever the outcome of the film is. You might want to do another film.

Phil – I’d love to. I’m not sure anyone else will; I’m putting many people in to therapy with this film but that would be great. But then again, I might just think ‘I’ve done that’. I won’t do it just because I’ve made a film and invent some spurious half-arsed concept…

Steve – I was just trying to generate some work for myself…

Phil – I know you were. Talking of which, there’s a collection of folk-based songs that I want to record, so I might do that as a little side project with some real folk musicians. Radical concept, I know. It’s simple; you don’t rehearse, you just have to sober them up. That’s something I wouldn’t mind doing as a side project; it’ll be nice, it’ll be my stardust memory. It was so much better when we wrote songs…

And that was where I switched off the recorder before the descent into totally scurrilous alcohol-fuelled conversation. The Basildon film that Phil refers to is ”New Town Utopia” and it’s a fascinating exploration of the development of the town and its impact on the creative artists living there. You really should watch it.

It’s difficult enough working out where to start a Phil Burdett review at the best of times without having to contend with an album that doesn’t actually start or finish anywhere. The clue’s in the song title “Sisyphus on Denmark Street”; the songwriter condemned forever to push a stone uphill. It could be worse; look what they did to Prometheus. The album cycles continuously from the birth of the dawn in “Net of Joy” to the dusk and senescence of “Dotage Train” and back to the beginning again, linked by the phrase ‘heavy miles to go’ in each song. Reincarnation without any upward or downward mobility and inspiration from the unholy poetic trilogy of William Blake, John Clare and Arthur Rimbaud.

If you’re part of the generation that doesn’t listen to albums, this isn’t for you; “Psychopastoral” is designed to be heard in a certain order, start to finish and then again and maybe once more, just to be sure that it is actually a work of genius. Phil’s taken a simple approach to ensuring we listen to everything in the intended order; the entire album’s one track with songs connected by musical and lyrical fragments. Does it work? Bloody right it does; at just under an hour, the images, fragments and melodies rush past at breakneck speed then start all over again bringing fresh musical and verbal marvels to discover.

I could spend hours going into minute detail about every aspect of this album, but that’s not going to help anyone, so I’ll try to pick out some of the attention to detail that permeates every aspect of this beautiful piece of work. How about the musicians? The core of this ensemble has been with Phil for a few years now and each one brings their own individual talents to a great ensemble sound. John Bennett (guitar) is one of my local heroes; comparisons with Steve Cropper are more than justified – not showy, but everything fits perfectly. Steve Stott adds colour and texture with bright mandolin and melancholy fiddle and Colleen McCarthy’s backing and lead vocals are a pure and clear foil for Phil’s soulful growl. And of course, Russ Strothard’s melodic bass playing, Lyndon Morgan’s spoken word contributions and the samples and programming contributed by Al Franklinos.

Phil’s voice sounds as good as I’ve ever heard it and the words are as densely packed with meaning and allusion as ever. I’m not going to bore you with my amateur literary criticism, you can delve into the layers of meaning for yourself (there’s a lyric booklet as part of the CD package); you’ll find it packed with autobiographical references both pleasurable and painful alongside the odd skewed musical reference (‘needles of death and the damaged rum’ from “Sisyphus on Denmark Street”).

I’m a huge admirer of Phil’s work, particularly from “Dunfearing and the West Country High” onwards and with “Psychopastoral”, he’s made an unflinching, uncompromising album that flies in the face of convention in its stance on sequencing and playback. There are some memorably catchy songs embedded in the piece, and Phil’s determined that they stay embedded and we hear them as part of the overall creation. It’s an ambitious project, but it’s perfect in every little detail. Favourite album of the year so far? I think so.

“Psychopastoral” is out now you; can order it direct from Phil’s website.

Let’s start 2018 in the traditional way by dusting off the Riot Squad crystal ball and having a peek into the next few months to see what we have to look forward to. As always, in no particular order.

After an absence of a couple of years to deal with serious health issues, Phil Burdett’s back in business again and firing out creative sparks in all directions. The action starts on Saturday January 27th at The Dickens in Southend with the launch gig for Phil’s latest album, “Psychopastoral”. He’ll be backed by the sublime Phil Burdett Group and the support band will be Winter. But that’s just the start; Phil has big plans for the rest of the year, including recording a double album of the songs written while he was in hospital, working on an art/film project and completing a book of poetry and a novel. We’ve got an interview with him coming up in the near future, so just watch this space. (Breaking news on this, Phil’s currently looking for a new venue for the gig on the 27th after The Dickens closed down over Christmas).

 

While we’re on the subject of grand ambitions, let me tell you about Martin Harley. He’s doing a three week tour of the UK with upright bass player extraordinaire Daniel Kimbro. They work together perfectly as a duo, both live and in the studio. The songwriting’s first class, the playing’s perfect and the harmonies are superb; even the chat between songs is interesting and often hilarious. Anyway, one of Martin’s ambitions is to play the Union Chapel in Islington, so he’s booked it for the last night of the tour on Saturday March 10th and he’s promoting the gig himself. It’s the perfect venue for Martin’s music and the Riot Squad will be out in force to support such a brave venture.

 

Another musical partnership we’ve been following for some time is Dean Owens and Will Kimbrough. Will’s guitar playing is in high demand; I lost count of the albums I reviewed in 2017 that featured Will’s playing, but he’s built a special relationship with Dean that’s led to a full-scale collaboration on their latest album “Southern Wind”. We’ve had some sneak previews here and we’ll be reviewing it in the next couple of weeks ahead of the official release date of Friday February 16 on At The Helm Records. You’ll love it.

 

2017 saw the release of the ‘lost’ PP Arnold album and the announcement she’s going to be making an album this year at Paul Weller’s Black Barn studio. It’s fantastic that “The Turning Tide” has finally been found, but even better that Pat is actually making original music again. And there’s plenty of speculation round the water cooler here at Riot towers about possible guest appearances and collaborations on the new album.

 

Finally, and this is specifically a London thing for the moment, late January will see the launch of Talentbanq, the latest venture for Ray Jones. Ray, former Development Director at Time Out has a passion for music that would shame most journalists and he’s always been willing to put a lot of time and effort into promoting new talent. Now that he’s no longer at Time Out he’s focussing his energies on promoting up-and-coming artists with Talentbanq. We’re still waiting for more details, but we do know that it’s going to be an interesting ride.

 

I’ve listened to a lot of new albums this year and a huge chunk of those have been very good indeed. I’ve reviewed a lot of Americana/country/roots albums, but there’s been thrash metal, blues, London indie, British folk, jazz instrumental, European electronic pop and one or two that defied classification. Here, in absolutely no order are my five favourite albums of this year; theses the ones that stayed with me, refusing to be replaced by new kids on the block. I’m including links to them where possible so that you don’t have to trust me, just click and listen for yourself.

Shaky Path to Arcadia” – Phil Burdett Group

Shaky Path to ArcadiaPhil Burdett released two albums almost simultaneously at the beginning of the year, leaving me with a really difficult choice about which to include (not the only example of that dilemma this year) and I think it’s “Shaky Path to Arcadia” by a hairsbreadth. It’s a great example of Phil’s work pulling together lyrical references from the American popular songbook, Dada,travel across the American continent, and Basildon (where Phil grew up and was in a band with a pre-Depeche Mode Martin Gore). Match up a breathtaking range of references with pure poetry and some lovely ensemble playing from Southend’s finest and you have an album that’s a thing of rare beauty. I really can’t understand why the world has never discovered this singer/songwriter/poet/renaissance man. Maybe this year. No Spotify link for this, but check out the first album in the trilogy “Dunfearing and the West Country High

Read the original review here.

“Six on the Out”- The Westies

The Westies - 'Six On The Out' - cover (300dpi)The Westies is Michael McDermott’s band project, running parallel with his solo work as Michael McDermott. In 2016, within the space of a few weeks, he released this Westies album, followed by the “Willow Springs” solo set (which could easily have made this list). “Six on the Out” is mainly the darker side of his past; the twilight zone inhabited by losers, petty criminals, addicts and misfits. It’s a dark and almost unrelenting journey through the things that did happen and the things that could have happened at the whim of fate. The ideas and the inspiration behind the songs are solid, but Michael’s lyrics (inspired and informed by the likes of Dylan and Springsteen) turn them into perfect little vignettes. When an album opens with the song “If I Had a Gun”, you know it won’t be easy listening; “Six On the Out” will leave you emotionally wrung out but elated to be in the presence of songwriting greatness.

Read the original review here.

“Double Take” -- Frankie Miller

double-take-scrollerFrankie Miller; best soul singer ever from the UK? No contest. Frankie had a massive brain haemorrhage in 1994 which incapacitated him for over a decade and from which he’s still slowly recovering. Around four years ago a batch of seventies demo tapes of unpublished songs resurfaced and Frankie’s supporters (with some firm guidance from Frankie) decided that they were suitable for release and that the perfect way to get them noticed would be to create duets with other singers. Not surprisingly there was no shortage of takers, including Rod Stewart, Paul Carrack, Kim Carnes and Willie Nelson and “Double Take” was born. But it’s not those cameos that make it great; it’s a whole bunch of great three-minute songs, simple and effective, and that phenomenal voice. The quality of the vocals is so good that it’s hard to believe that these are demos; this is the business. The duet idea’s been handled fairly well, none of them sound jarring, and Elton John sounds like he’s having a great time, but the highlight for me is still the three band demos with “Full House” proving what a superb rock ‘n’ soul outfit they were.

Read the original review here.

“Big Sky Country” -- Sofia Talvik

Sofia Talvik - 'Big Sky Country' - cover (300dpi)In a year when I reviewed a lot of Americana , “Big Sky Country” stood out from the crowd because of the way it blended American and Scandinavian influences to create a voice that’s uniquely Sofia Talvik. The album was a result of a lengthy tour of the USA and manages to capture the vast open spaces of the deserts and prairies while keeping the intimacy and melancholy of tales of broken relationships and depression. Sofia’s pure, ethereal voice floats gently above a variety of musical stylings, creating an atmosphere that’s widescreen and ethereal, grandiose and mundane, summed up by these lines from the title song : ‘I’ve seen the Blue Ridge Mountains rise tall, I’ve heard the San Francisco sea lions call, I left my heart in a dirty old bar, in Laramie, Wyoming, I slept in my car’.

Read the original review here.

“Truth is A Wolf” -- Mollie Marriott

MollieThis one’s the album that never was. I had a review copy for months, played it to death in the car. Loved the songs, the singing, the playing, the whole lot. As the release date kept slipping, I held off publishing the review until I just had to get it out there. Apparently the album won’t ever be released in that form, but some dodgy reviewers have been selling copies on eBay. Mollie has a tremendous voice that’s backed up by impressive songwriting (and choosing her collaborators well) but the album works so well because you can feel that it’s a real band. They’re all great players, but it’s more than that, you can feel a sense of unity running through the entire album. I’d love to be able to share the album with you, but the best  can do is share this single video for “Ship of Fools” and point you in the direction of YouTube:

Read the original review here.

 

Estuary Fringe DCS ScrollerIt’s not just Edinburgh that has a festival in August. What about Southend? Maybe not as fashionable but there’s a great arts scene around Southend and its satellites. So, on a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon, why not head out to have a look at The Railway Hotel’s contribution to the Estuary Fringe Festival which is an afternoon session in the beer garden followed by more live bands inside in the evening. I got there just as the belly dancing was finishing and the stage was being set up for live music (with background music leaning heavily on blues classics and some nice Al Stewart songs).

First on stage was Pick Yer Feet Up, or Eleanor Donne (fiddle) and Dave Murray (twangs and bangs) playing a selection of ‘bogus Bulgarian bangers’. It was relatively low-key but very melodic in an Eastern European way with a nice line in dry patter from Dave between songs. In the great old Python tradition of ‘now for something completely different’, next up was Dirty Captain Scott. What can I say? A twentieth-century estuary poet backed with cajon beats (and guitar towards the end of the set). The rhythms were insistent and the delivery, well, imagine Adele rapping and you’re most of the way there. A great set that you just couldn’t ignore.

Next? The Timlins (Matt and Victoria) played a lovely set of melancholy (maybe even miserable) songs, reminding me a lot of Turin Brakes and (bonus points if you remember this band) Budapest. Victoria’s keyboard filled out the textures created by Matt’s acoustic guitar and the harmonies were sublime. Personally, I like a bit of miserable; always have. Dead Air next, playing their first (and possibly only) gig, played a set of folky Americana with a female lead singer, acoustic guitar and mandolin backing and some lovely harmonies. If you wanted a backing track for an English summer day you wouldn’t go far wrong here.

And on to Phil Burdett, backed by long-term collaborators John Bennett (guitar), Steve Stott (mandolin and fiddle) and Colleen McCarthy (backing vocals). This was only Phil’s second live appearance after major surgery earlier in the year and he was a man on a mission, determined to get songs from his two (yes, two) new albums out there in a live setting. Throughout the set, the arrangements were a masterclass in understatement; the instruments created a framework that allowed the songs to shine. John Bennett is subtle and understated in a way that reminds me a lot of Steve Cropper; no fuss, but just try to imagine The MGs without the guitar parts. Even “New Greyhound Rag”, which was written as full band piece with bass, drums and various other bits of percussion is driven along nicely by the two guitars.

But just focus on the songs. From the opener “Sea Change” to “A Kind of Chalkwell Station Blue”, the short set was packed with melodic and lyrical invention.  The lines ‘you switch the channel in your mind – and on the news voices buzz like cracked kazoos the needle stuck on tombstone blues’ are a great example of Phil’s ability to create a striking, evocative image. All delivered to perfection in Phil’s mellow growl. You really shouldn’t get music this good for free in a pub beer garden, even if the pub is The Railway.

I’m looking forward to seeing Phil officially launch “Humble Ardour Refrains” and “Shaky Path to Arcadia” on November 5th in Southend.

If you haven’t seen them before, here are some pictures of the event.

HAR ScrollerA long time ago, I really struggled with the musical concept that the most important thing wasn’t the notes, but the space between the notes. I was a bit literal and musically unsophisticated at that time, but I managed to get my head around the idea before it got me into any arguments. The reason I’m inviting you to have a laugh at my expense here is that Phil Burdett’s album “Humble Ardour Refrains” has some wonderful examples of using the space between the notes to create atmosphere and emotion. This is one of two albums that Phil’s releasing simultaneously on Drumfire Records (you can read about “Shaky Path to Arcadia” here) and if you take the two albums together, it’s an extraordinary achievement.

He’s used the same musicians (with the addition of flute and sax on this album from Paula Borrell) to produce two very different albums; musically, “Humble Ardour Refrains” has a more acoustic, folky vibe and there’s a much more confessional, intimate feel to the autobiographical material. I’m sure that everyone listening to this will pick out different songs that they love, but my instant favourite was “A Kind of Chalkwell Station Blue”; Russ Strothard’s melodic bass line works perfectly with John Bennett’s clipped guitar and Jack Corder’s congas to create a backing that rolls along seemingly effortlessly under Phil’s sub-apocalyptic vision of Southend and Canvey. When you add Paula Borrell’s meandering flute, the result is sublime. It’s a song that took me back to John Martyn at this very best.

If we’re talking comparisons (and we are), Tom Waits would be proud of the lo-fi stomp of “Jackleg Preacher” with its ‘ruffian choir’ and yuppie-vilifying lyrics; the band can do subtle, but they can also crank it up like a bar band. I should really mention “Chickenwire” as well; I can’t think of any other songwriter who can write a love song (unusual in itself for Phil) that includes the lines ‘This sick life worships morning tide & Satan’s sleeping on the shore, He’ll leave his bitter truths behind – callous, cruel & raw’.

As always, the metaphors range far and wide, from The Bible to French literature with musical references from Dexys to Dylan and Songdog dropped into the mix as well. “Humble Ardour Refrains” is a very personal album exploring childhood and lost innocence, London, absent friends (“Likes of Us”), some very dark times and the mental and physical place that Phil finds himself in at the moment.

Even if you ignore the simultaneous release of “Shaky Path to Arcadia”, this is an astonishingly good album from an artist who really should be much better known than he is. I can’t even choose between the two albums; you should just give yourself a treat and buy both.

“Humble Ardour Refrains” and “Shaky Path to Arcadia” are both out on January 29 on Drumfire Records.

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.

Phil PenmanPhil Penman is the MD of the independent label, Drumfire Records, and all-round good bloke with years of experience in the music business. We were really pleased that he was able to contribute to this year’s High Fives and we’re happy to say that he’s going to double Drumfire’s 2015 output very early in 2016; we’ll be bringing you some news about that in the very near future. It’s just possible that Phil Burdett could be involved.

 

 

Into the SeaAlbum of the Year (aka I Love My Label)

In the literal sense Dean Owens’Into the Sea” was my album of the year because it was the one and only release on my label Drumfire Records. It occupied my time, endeavour and thoughts for much of the time, but most importantly of all, it is indeed a great album – Dean’s best to date – and due to his indefatigable manager Morag Neil and my own efforts as well as Dean’s, he’s had a really good year, including supporting Rosanne Cash at London’s Union Chapel, a Bob Harris Country session, 3 consecutive BBC Radio Scotland playlists, and now deserved appearances in a slew of end-of-year best-of lists.

 DartsI Love My Job Sometimes

Last year in this category I talked about how proud I was of my work on the first box set by The Sound. Volume 2 followed and was equally brilliant. I worked on a number of special projects, but the one I would call a labour of love is the 6 CD boxset “The Complete Collection” by my wonderful friends Darts. I managed to bring together all their released recordings for Magnet Records, alongside their self-released Choice Cuts records, and dozens of unreleased studio recordings. Huge Fun.

Sleaford ModsKeeping The Fires Burning (aka One That Nearly Got Away)

Every year I trawl around trying to hear something new; something different; something exciting; something challenging. I am always dismayed by the endless stream of predictability and mediocrity in so-called ‘new’ music. I had resisted listening to this band, convinced by their name, image, and hype, that I wouldn’t like them.  Controversial choice I’m sure, but when I finally stopped to listen to Sleaford Mods, I was hit in the face with the stark aggression, simplistic beats and total listenability.  Honourable mention here also to the folk band Stick in the Wheel for doing it their way.

 Hannah Rose PlattBright Young Thing

One nomination for this category of mine this year.  I met the lovely Hannah Rose Platt in 2014, and in 2015 she released her debut album “Portraits” and we were delighted to welcome her in Twickenham as support for a show we hosted with Martin Stephenson. Her album is well worth getting a copy of. Oh yes, and she also got married this year.

 

Death Cab for CutieReturn to Form

Several albums that I enjoyed this year were I thought not quite as good as previous releases:  John Grant, Jason Isbell, Ron Sexsmith, Patty Griffin – all very good but just a little disappointing. The one I saw as a return to form was Death Cab for Cutie’sKintsugi”.

 

Phil Burdett

Phil Burdett

We’re officially giving a big thank you to Phil Burdett for this contribution. Phil should have been playing a launch gig for his two (yes, two) new Drumfire Records albums tonight, but he’s spent a few days in hospital this week and he’s at home now recovering. Despite that, he still managed to write about his five favourite things this year for us; we salute you Mr Burdett and we hope that your recovery is swift and complete.

 

 

The Cutting EdgeBob Dylan – “The Cutting Edge”

The fabulous set of out-takes from the Zimmerman back catalogue is a fascinating peek through the studio door as his muse churns & twists words & phrases to fit the evolving music. A must for any Bobcats still stuck in his anorak pocket.

 

Sleaford ModsSleaford Mods – “Key Markets”

A new breath of fresh air that I only got into after going on a local radio show during which they played me songs I’d probably hate to get me to slag them off. I did and got banned but this one I liked. Has a DIY, Rough Trade, shouty, 1978 kinda vibe & I’m into that kinda vibe, y’know?

 

Senor AlSenor Al & the Honolulus – “Bluestronic Soul”

Somewhere at a party thrown by Roky Erikson through amps designed by Neil Young, the bastard child of Captain Beefheart & a tequila-wrecked lay preacher from San Jose testifies…strictly late 2014 but I missed it.

 

 

Iron and WineIron and Wine – Archive Series Volume No. 2

Grumbly little shards of country lo-fi that either intrigue or delight in equal measure, both of which are fine by me.

 

 

 

X FactorX Factor getting less viewers than Antiques Roadshow

Bunch of so called experts judging people who are only in it for how much money they’re gonna make…Mind you, that X Factor’s just as bad…