When Neil Burrell sent me his new album, he didn’t include any song titles.  It took several texts and a couple of draft lists before ‘final’ titles were forthcoming.

‘Oli,
i was gonna leave it up to the listener
to decide on the titles
but that would get a bit confusing i guess’

Thank God, a maverick.

Because I’m bored.  Because everything is so fucking straight.  Everything is so rational.  Everything is so logical.  Everything is so repressed, everything is so hemmed in.  It’s quiet.  Platitudes are murmured.  Conventions are observed.  Standards are upheld.  Eke, eke, eke, from month to month, pay check to pay check, office to pub, cigarette hangover, under the same sky every day.

”Jon, he had it sussed / He was living the life of a tramp / In his bed was the cold and the damp / but the sun was his friend….”

Burrell’s folk hero ‘Mad Jon’, meanwhile, lives out there in the English greenwood (does it still exist?), whilst  caged, frightened curtain twitchers peek, speculate and mythologise.

“Mothers sang to their children / beware of Mad Jon…”

Mad Jon was off the beaten track, the Path Thru Life.  He was to be shunned, he was penniless, he was dangerous…

”He was free…”

Compare / contrast with Wilco (and I do like Wilco), a conventional rock band from one of America’s big cities: –

“It’s OK for you to say what you want from me / I believe that’s the only way for me to be / Exactly what you want me to be” (‘Handshake Drugs’ – A Ghost Is Born).

’Mad Jon’ is, to me, Neil Burrell’s most focused and revealing broadside yet.

Elsewhere, the immediately appealing, rural lope of ‘Sun Low’, with it’s brilliant opening line (“Smiling from ear to ear” … it’s hard to explain, just listen to it), reminds this listener of Tim Buckley, before a beautifully lazy slide motif riff melts the perceptions and really does seem to evoke sunset, especially when allied to gorgeous, subtle high harmonies.  ‘Sun Low’ is the scene of some brilliantly executed production ideas.

Where Burrell has fallen down in the past has been in neglecting to really do justice to his own ideas.  Not a criticism that can be levelled at him on the strength of this album.  There’s even room for a reinvention of Lou Reed’s ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, which is so different from the original, that my initial reaction was to think, “hang on, he’s stolen the words to ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ for this song”, rather than, “oh, he’s covering ‘Pale Blue Eyes’”.  There’s something haunting and timeless about the way Burrell sings the line ‘Most of all time, you make me mad…”, holding the note on ‘mad’, so that it floats and makes you close your eyes with it.

The song and album conclude with a creepy segue into the refrain from the timeless ‘You’re All I Need To Get By’, which is an uncomfortable listen, until the plug is suddenly pulled and the song stops dead, mid line.

We’re in Alice’s Wonderland here.  The terrain is unpredictable, slightly spooky, up and down, laden with pitfalls, but you come out glad you experienced it.  Neil Burrell inhabits a hinterland of English imagination, an inheritance that rightfully belongs to all of us, but that the most of us, keyboards thundering as we type our very souls into our emails, our blogs, excitedly pouring unimportant personal consumption preferences into Facebook – look, we’re forgetting ourselves.  We don’t even know where to find ourselves any more.

Neil Burrell’s music has been dismissed in some quarters as the faux-naïve whimsy of a drug-addled Syd Barrett wannabe.  Wrong.  This is a much better record than its predecessor, White Devil’s Day Is Almost Over, which felt like what it was – a collection of early demos.  In comparison, The Shine of Your Skeleton feels like a suite of songs, written, recorded and mixed together.  Doesn’t matter if it is or not, it just doesn’t seem so scattershot. Coherent, controlled and rife with creativity, there is even a tantalising hint at the possibility of Burrell as a songwriter who might develop a fearsome back catalogue of songs and sonic excursions, a la Jason Molina, over tens of albums across different projects.

Not that his ethereal songwriting itself is reminiscent of the far more sturdy, craftsmanly Molina.  Unconventional (thankfully), unpredictable and prone to moments of beauty, hidden away in a forest that is anything but impenetrable, it will take a leap of faith, a left turn off the A roads you know so well, to encounter The Shine of Your Skeleton.  But before you know it, you too will be dancing with Mad Jon.

He means you no harm.

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What to say about this enigmatic, soulful young singer? Yet another musical Manchester immigrant, his style is not the easiest to get to know. His lyrics are strikingly strange and his songs awkward, Byzantine structures, prone to willful U-turns; but crucially, there are always moments of ‘well, that was well worth it’ jaw-drop wonder. His pure-tone, ‘it doesn’t matter how many fags I smoke’ voice swoops and trembles.

Syd Barrett is the obvious comparison, as the two share the ability to magic up a psychedelic moment in music and have a similar penchant for ‘it does make sense, just tilt your head slightly’ lyricism. Burrell is most probably directly descended from the royal court minstrels of medieval England. There is nothing remotely topical in his writing, which is one way of creating something that feels timeless.

A resolutely unconventional solo singer/guitarist, his live gigs have often been difficult for him. I felt dreadful for him at one In The City showcase, as twenty of us stood at the front trying to listen to him delicately pick and nervously deliver some of his best material, whilst the clueless ya-ya’s at the bar laughed horsily and droned nasally, with the collective volume of an enormous turbo sinus. Truly, a pearl before swine. He is currently putting together a new group, the Audinary Hearts Band, with fellow songwriter guitarist Phil McDonald (aka Baxter Trappe) and the Former Bullies drummer Tom sitting in until a permanent member can be found.

I caught an recent show at The Royal Oak in Chorlton and was heartened to hear some potentially brilliant material, reminiscent of the early Pavement sound – off key/on key, haphazard, but intriguing. The first Audinary Hearts demo contains at least one Burrell classic, the beautiful, non-stop vocal coda waltz ‘Six Streets Down Love’.

Lazy journalists will probably describe you as sounding like you are ‘on acid’, ‘tripping on mushrooms’, or ’stoned’. Would you like to take this opportunity to tell the readership that you Don’t Do Drugs?

I don’t know about that ?

I understand you’re originally from Cambridge – how did you come to be in Manchester? And did you ever see Syd knocking about?

I was born by the sea, all the way at the bottom of the island, then I lived with the concrete cows and sometime before I reached double figures, we moved again near enough to Cambridge. So I’m not from any one place. That’s sorta what I’m searching for. My friends would say they’d seen Syd about listening to music, you know bobbing his head, except he was never wearing headphones.

When did you write you first song? Were your folks musical?

I was thinking about this the other day, it was in New Cross in London with my friend in his basement flat. It was hot summer and that night we ate chicken soup cooked by his girlfriend’s dad who’s from Chile. I remember the soup being good but I cant remember the song, only that it hooked me onto something that nothing had before. My folks never really listened to music!

What can we expect from the forthcoming album? You must be really excited to have a full-length LP out.

It’ll be something good, something you’ve never heard before and you will have heard it a thousand times too. It’s taken three years to put it all together. It’s odd, I don’t remember recording it much, that might be for other reasons though. It’s my best album yet, heh heh.

It’s very difficult to compare you to anybody else, even though yr vocal style seems instantly familiar. Can you give the readers an idea of where you’re coming from musically? One or two core influences, perhaps?

I’m sorta coming from everywhere looking for somewhere and not knowing the way. Influences … like any kind of roots in there I like, you know, regardless of the sound, im into that in the music. Today, I was listening to M.I.A and Orange Juice

Do you ever feel like writing a straight narrative lyric? I’ll give you a quick example – 1,2,3,4, ‘felt so good today / baby’s here to stay / she’s the queen of my heart / yeah, yeah, yeah’, or maybe ‘Today, I feel quite sad / everything seems bad / don’t know what to say / cos I feel so bad today’ … As opposed to your more cryptic words – ‘drift by on a passing eyelash’ (from the wonderful ‘Stick Out Your Tongue’), for example.

Mmm, I don’t really think about what kind of thing it is, it just comes the way it comes. It mostly means anything at all. If I could simplify everything I wanted to say into four lines, I would arrive. That’s what I’m after.

What I’m driving at is that there is a certain mystery to your lyrics and indeed your persona. In these post-Arctic Monkeys days, we seem to be deluged with aggressively normal young singers who outline their problem – a serious English small-town malaise – without having any solutions or clues for a better future. Your stuff, meanwhile, totally bypasses the modern age, would you say?

I don’t know, it sounds like you described me there. Will normality look different depending on where it is? Maybe my music’s just out of touch! I guess I don’t really pay any attention to time, because I think where is the start and where is the end. I get fast and slow.

Are you enjoying playing live more now that you have some company on stage (Phil McDonald)? Phil is no mean songwriter in his own right – have you enjoyed working on his songs?

He’s got some great songs, lyrically he gets a lot closer than many to simplifying and connecting with you. Playing live, I love or hate, it’s a lot better when we’re playing together now though, to get that fuller sound. At the moment we’re still trying to control it, because it gets wild and then we’re fighting with it to calm it, it’s volatile and can change in a flash.

Ooompa Zoompa/Evelyn 7inch out 27th AUGUST

http://www.myspace.com/neilburrell

-Ollie Wright