Unerringly strange, 'Bright Phoebus' is an outsider folk cult classic and available again for the first time in years
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‘Bright Phoebus’ is one of those infuriatingly scarce albums that’s long been discussed in hushed, reverential tones but has, for the vast majority of it’s existence, been nigh-on impossible to find. Whilst the internet has made genuine obscurity a rare thing, Lal & Mike Waterson’s 1972 outing can certainly lay solid claim to the title. With a list of contributors reading like a who’s who of early ’70s folk rock royalty (Richard Thompson, Maddy Prior and Martin Carthy amongst them) the album definitely had no shortage of talent – and it showed.
Quite why ‘Bright Phoebus’ has remained relatively unknown when other records of its ilk have gained considerable cult following isn’t immediately clear but, on closer inspection, it’s not so hard to see why. It’s certainly not for any lack of quality but rather for the fact that ‘Bright Phoebus’ is such an ineffably strange – at times even disconcerting – album, that it’s unable to fit into any one style, however niche. Where acid folk exponents like Comus and Dr. Strangely Strange were overtly psychedelic enough that they appealed to the darker subset of drug-munching reprobates, Lal & Mike Waterson sat somewhere in between.
Deeply based in folk tradition, ‘Bright Phoebus’ was not an album of drug-fuelled abandon and avant-garde experimentation, but rather one where the duo stretched the outer boundaries of traditional folk – creating an, at times, unsettling record that was too straight-laced for the hippies but far too experimental for the traditionalists. In hindsight, it’s an undeniably forward-thinking album and one that makes more sense today that it likely would have upon release. There’s a clear line to be drawn between ‘Bright Phoebus’ and the work of contemporary fringe-folk innovators such as RichardDawson and, for that alone, it’s a commendably inventive album.
Although the record may ostensibly have more in common with the traditional folk that both Mike and Lal were so familiar with, having sung as part of the respected family folk band The Watersons, there’s a deeply experimental slant to the duo’s outlook here that lends the album an almost subversive element. Instrumentation is singsong and mostly restrained, both Martin Carthy and Richard Thompson taking string duties on numerous tracks throughout; it’s a reliably pretty album from a musical perspective but the often pained, mournful delivery and subtle use of dissonance – especially on the songs where Lal Waterson takes the lead – lends the album a haunting sense of disquiet that forms an essential part of the album’s singular personality.
‘Bright Phoebus’ is a collection of songs that can initially appear disjointed and mismatched, the record’s ambitious degree of variety being one of its most oblique characteristics. Even if that first playthrough proves to be challenging, returning again to the album is hugely worthwhile as choices that initially confuse eventually reveal themselves to define the album and the stridently unique attitude it stands for. The opener may be the jolly singalong of ‘Rubber Band’ but it’s something of a red herring; ‘Bright Phoebus’ is anything but an album of knees-ups, as the staccato melancholy of ‘Winnifer Odd’ and the wistful observations of ‘Never The Same’ illustrate.
Although almost exclusively acoustic and sonically rooted in tradition, to characterise ‘Bright Phoebus’ as a folk album is a misnomer. For a start, the duo wrote all of the album’s tracks and, whilst execution may be mostly understated and utilise traditional instrumentation, the song’s themes are often dark and, at times, even surreal. Although ‘Bright Phoebus’ is an album too subtle to employ the psychedelic clichés of the era, it’s an album that nonetheless feels distinctly unique – perhaps even more so because it somehow balances its duality of folk tradition and forward-thinking experimentation so well. In a nutshell, ‘Bright Phoebus’ isn’t a particularly psychedelic record – as many of it’s ilk were – but it is a remarkably strange one.
Lal &MikeWaterson created a notably singular album with ‘Bright Phoebus’. Even within the diverse and eclectic experimental folk boom of the late ’60s and early ’70s, it stands alone. Set aside from both the traditional and LSD-dropping subsets of folk at the time, ‘Bright Phoebus’ is an album set apart from its contemporaries. While it’s a record that takes some adjusting to, it’s an album well worth persevering with for the completely singular path that Lal & Mike Waterson travelled down.