With this Domino reissue, Lal and Mike Waterson's 1972 album Bright Phoebus seems to be finally receiving the recognition that it deserved all along. Called their folk-noir masterpiece and compared to a British folk version of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's, Bright Phoebus draws you into its uncanny yet everyday world of dreary weather, rural life, ritual and magic.
Mike and Lal (Elaine) Waterson experienced success in the mid-'60s as part of traditional singing group the Watersons, but by the '70s they'd given it up, as the touring life took its toll on them. Bright Phoebus emerged out of a hiatus during which Mike and Lal separately, and then together, worked on songwriting. When Steeleye Span's Martin Carthy heard Lal's songs he was so impressed that he alerted his bandmate, former Fairport Convention bassist Ashley Hutchings, who in turn contacted engineer Bill Leader and pulled a band together. It all goes a long way to explaining why Bright Phoebus at times sounds like a serendipitous party through which Steeleye Span's Maddy Prior, Bob Davenport and Mike and Lal's sister Norma (who sings lead on the album cut of "Red Wine & Promises") wander; they literally pulled in anyone who was around for some of the choruses (including a delivery guy).
Misunderstood and unappreciated at the time by Watersons fans who expected (and sometimes demanded) that they stick to purely traditional material, and then lost in record label limbo for a long time and only available on burned CD-Rs (pre-YouTube), Bright Phoebus is an arresting, eccentric and at times stark listen that sounds like it must have grown out of a deep and varied love of music: country, rock, classical and experimental influences stand side by side with original writing that hangs on to its traditional sources of inspiration even as its letting loose. This was all new ground for Mike and Lal, as they were playing original songs for the first time with backing musicians.
Mike's contributions, including "Magical Man" and album bookends "Rubber Band" (which features an actual rubber band solo) and the titular "Bright Phoebus," tend to be sprightlier. The latter song is one of those gems that doesn't sound written — it sounds more like he caught it while he was working on his painting ladder.
Yet it's clearly Lal's album; every time she sings, it's incredible. On "Fine Horseman," the darkest of love songs, Lal's voice is in a captivating dance with Richard Thompson and Martin Carthy's guitars, a cello and especially an oboe (played by Sue Harris) — the effect is almost that of stilled time. On the syncopated "Winifer Odd," Lal concocts a miniature life story that mixes a life's supply of imagined frustrations with a quirky sense of humour, while on mournful "Child Among the Weeds," Lal sounds a bit like Nico.
"To Make You Stay" (covered recently by the Decemberists and Olivia Chaney on their Offa Rex collaboration) is for her children, while "Red Wine & Promises" is a totally humanizing love song culled from her own experience of stumbling over drunk in the street — Norma Waterson and Carthy, who perform the album version together, ended up getting married soon after.
In addition to the album, which remains an unlikely and absolutely wonderful and essential listen, there are 12 bonus demo tracks in the reissue, including three songs that didn't make the album: Lal's "Song For Thirza," (about the woman who took care of them when they were kids) and "One Of Those Days," and Mike's "Jack Frost." (Domino)