Bright Phoebus had become something of a ‘lost album’ cause celebre, with a growing campaign for this proper re-release over the last few years. Of course it’s difficult for a record to be truly lost these days. What with original copies, a few dodgy CD-R reissues and the access afforded by youtube, it was already possible for anyone whose interest in Lal and Mike Waterson’s 1972 album had been piqued , to discover enough to know that there were some stunning songs out of print.
Even putting sound quality aside, you can’t really cobble together a satisfying listen from youtube, so it’s only with Domino’s rather lovely re-release that many of us are getting a real chance to have a proper listen. And it’s difficult to stop. As you go through the songs tend to fall into two types, opener Rubber Band with its jaunty 60s folk-rock eccentricity is echoed in the fairground Magical Man, the tale of an outlaw Danny Rose and Shady Lady. But for all that they’re not entirely unskippable there’s an undercurrent of oddness and even sometimes threat that links these to the other songs. Those are more traditional-style folk tunes, with a dark and melancholy beauty. Often when beauty and folk music go together it conjures up ethereal and wistful imagery. But these tunes couldn’t be less ethereal and are all the more lovely for that. Red Wine Promises is the prime example, lovely and self-reflective, but based around falling over pissed in the street in Hull (we’ve all been there, though I’m guessing this is pre-Spiders…), it finds its echo in some of Lal’s niece, Eliza Carthy’s songs. The quality abounds though Scarecrow is the song that brought me to the record – having been covered by Cathal Coughlan for a Fatima Mansions b-side 25 years ago, and by the ever-excellent James Yorkston. It evokes ritual and tradition with an implicitly sinister tone. Fine Horseman is just wonderful. Along with Child Amongst the Weeds and the post-apocalyptic Never The Same and the terrific Winifer Odd – its whimsy undercut with pitch-perfect bathos (“she waited all that fall for him to grow tall and slim. But he was fat and small.”) – it makes for a clutch of the finest off-kilter folk songs you could ask for.
And for once the extras are well worth it, the demos are stripped back excellence and include the treat of Lal singing The Scarecrow and the fabulous Song for Thirza, recently reprised by Yorkston/Thorne/Khan. Overall, for all that it’s a bit of a curate’s egg (you might well find yourself jumping Rubber Band), like the little girl, when it’s good, it’s very, very good.