Peter Bruntnell

TrackAlbum
Handful Of StarsNormal For Bridgwater
You Won't Find MeNormal For Bridgwater
Here Come The SwellsEnds Of The Earth
Ends Of The EarthEnds Of The Earth
Black AcesEnds Of The Earth
By The Time My Head Gets To PhoenixPlayed Out
K2Ghost In A Spitfire
Cold Water SwimmerPeter And The Murder Of Crows
BluebeardPeter And The Murder Of Crows
Penelope Keith BlueBlack Mountain UFO

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Contributor: Keith Shackleton

Every review of Peter Bruntnell I’ve read seems to include Rolling Stone’s “England’s best kept musical secret” quote, or something like “quietly building up a reputation as one of the country’s most promising singer-songwriters”. And whilst that may be true, I should mention that Peter’s been doing this for a good while now (nine albums that have all flown under the radar, to a degree, including a couple that never really took off), he’s not one for hoopla and he’s not suddenly going to explode into the nation’s consciousness. It’s obvious he’d just rather get on with doing what he does best, which is crafting ‘No Depression’ Americana, if you were forced to put a label on it. Some of the best music I’ve ever heard, if you don’t like labels.

If Peter actually was American he’d be praised to the high hills. He’s widely travelled, was born in New Zealand but settled in Kingston upon Thames. If there’s a rugby match on, he says he’s Welsh, because his parents are. His music has echoes of the Byrds, Big Star and Neil Young and stands up alongside modern American bands like Wilco and Sparklehorse. It has a soft focus feel, with sadly expressive, cracked, lonesome, longing vocals and shining moments of great beauty.

His first two albums, Cannibal and Camelot In Smithereens were low-fi pop. The colourful video for I Will, I Won’t barely hints at what was to follow, and looks to be trying a little too hard to please, considering Brit Pop is exploding all around. There’s nothing particularly wrong with these albums, they have some nice moments. I was about to describe them as prototypes, but that’s not right.. there’s not enough of Peter in them to say that. They feel like records that someone else thought Peter should make.

Given free rein though, he made what may be his greatest album, and one of the finest records in my collection, 1999’s outstanding Normal For Bridgwater. I think that now, but at first I didn’t. If ever a record could be described as a grower, this is the … er … growingest. The cover says it all – indistinct shadowy trees in a forest shrouded in mist. I had to go into the forest a fair way to see those trees properly, feel the grain of the bark, smell the moss, and find out what a terrific organic flow this record has. It’s so much more personal than his early work. A liquid pedal steel winds in and out of the phrasing, courtesy of Son Volt’s Eric Heywood. From that same band, Dave Boquist adds neat flourishes of violin. The guitar work on the album is exemplary, courtesy of young gun James Walbourne (who is both a Pretender and a Pernice Brother). From it, I’ll take Handful Of Stars, a slow-burning song of irreconciliation, and the lush through-the-bottom-of-a-glass worldview of You Won’t Find Me. I could have chosen more: it was definitely a wrench to leave out the widescreen travelogue of Shot From A Spring. One more song from the record will pop up later in a different guise.

So what does the album title mean? Peter: “A couple who are friends of mine ran a particularly rough pub in Bridgwater and the landlady was telling me one day that the doctors there use the abbreviation NFB
(= Normal For Bridgwater) when describing their test results for slightly disturbed local patients.”

The follow up, Ends Of The Earth, is just as good, and his most immediate. Peter throws some darts at choice targets: eco-destroyers in Rio Tinto, life-destroyers in Tabloid Reporter, and he kicks off the album with a slap in the face for the kind of irritating squibs we all love to hate, Here Come The Swells. The finer songs are subtler though … the coruscating lyrics of the collapsing relationship tales Black Aces and Ends of The Earth are the best in a tremendously strong collection of songs.

It felt like Peter had thrown everything he had into these two records, so good are they. I certainly thought so when Played Out subsequently hit the stores, an acoustic collection of previously released songs, recorded with Walbourne. Joe Pernice says of the duo, “When you see two guys on stage with acoustic guitars, you say to yourself, ‘Please, God, make it go by quickly. And another thing, God, if you can, would you minimize the damage?’”, but he confirms that he didn’t need to worry in this particular case. Played Out seems like a sidestep, but these re-recordings shine a different light on the tunes and all of them work in this stripped-back form. By The Time My Head Gets To Phoenix is delicately played, in contrast to its previous power pop perfection on Normal For Bridgwater. I can’t really choose one over the other, but the acoustic version makes it here for added variety, nothing more. Listen to them both!

Strange title, huh? Peter wrote it after watching a news programme in which someone decided to send their dead body to cryogenic tanks in Arizona to be frozen until science advanced sufficiently to revive it. But a body is heavy, and shipping it might be expensive, so why not just send the head? If it could be revived, surely it would be child’s play to transplant it on a spare body?

When Ghost In A Spitfire came along, there was a real sense of the record company pushing for the big one. Three years on from Ends Of The Earth, the question was still being asked: “How can we break this guy? He’s amazing.” The frayed country-rock of the title track, a sonic tip of the cap to Neil Young in Little Lorelei, World Won’t Wait has hints of Ronnie Lane. I’ll take the elegiac album opener K2 from this record though it wasn’t an easy choice. Peter presented Loose with maybe his best album-as-album; critically acclaimed, but again, no real commercial advance.

And then there was a little stylistic shift from the great man. I’m rounding out the list with tracks from Peter And The Murder Of Crows and Black Mountain UFO, both of which are a little more psychedelic (such an over-used term, but bear with me). There is just a little more experimentation with found sounds and a spacier vibe, but still with that core of well-crafted genius tunes.

Cold Water Swimmer has fingerpicked guitar over an Indian harmonium, a sitar highlights the main riff (live, Peter can really press the loud pedal on this one, which brings another perspective) and there’s a wiggy, wonky outro. A gently sawing string section opens Bluebeard, a desolate song redolent of the nightmarish low key parts of Big Star’s third album, with a perfectly understated guitar solo. Penelope Keith Blue kicks off with a child’s music box, then a phased wash of synthesisers develops into an aching acoustic strum topped off with some Harrison-esque slide guitar. There’s a richer sonic palette on these records and an ethereal beauty to many of these tunes, but it’s not all light and air … there’s a profound lyrical sorrow too.

I can be doing something completely boring, or disconnected, just strolling along maybe, and I’ll be earwormed by one of these later songs … not in an inescapable shouty chart-pop kind of way, but suddenly Domestico or
St. Christopher will be back there in my head, and I won’t be able to place it immediately, or even name it. Paradoxically, Peter makes distinctive songs that are easy to love but hard to grasp.

His vocals have a certain detachment, and perhaps they don’t fully engage unless you’re really listening. There’s a sense of distance, a gap between our world and his that has to be bridged. An English otherworldliness underpins everything he does – the Englishness of a Roy Harper, say, or Nick Drake – which he acknowledged round about the time of release of Murder Of Crows as something he wanted to return to.

If you’re a fan of any of the other artists I’ve mentioned here, and not familiar with Peter, seek him out. My advice would be to give his music a goodly amount of time to seep into your bones. If I’d been my usual impatient self when I first came across Normal For Bridgwater, I’d have set it to one side and missed out on a wonderful singer-songwriter. Have patience and like me, you might just establish a rare connection. One of the best.

Peter Bruntnell official website

Peter Bruntnell biography (AllMusic)

The main video clip, London Clay, is the opener from the 2012 album Ringo Woz Ere, and was a contender for this topper 10. Read more of Keith Shackleton’s writings at his website, The Riverboat Captain.

TopperPost #350

8 Comments

  1. Rob Millis
    Sep 13, 2014

    Now, there’s a thing. Pete Bruntnell, formerly of Thames Ditton. Many is the time we’ve shared a Kingston stage together. I shall tell him what lovely things you said…

  2. Peter Bruntnell
    Sep 15, 2014

    I say Rob, you certainly do have some fabulous friends?

  3. Vic Martin
    Sep 16, 2014

    What a great article !

  4. Juliet Bartley
    Sep 16, 2014

    Great article. Couldn’t agree more. I have been a big fan for years!

  5. Peter Viney
    Sep 16, 2014

    Best kept secret? Indeed, totally new to me. On NFB (Normal for Bridgewater), there was a major fuss in 2012 about doctors writing “NFN” (“Normal for Norfolk”) on their weirder patients. Looks like he was in a dozen years earlier. Anyway, I was persuaded and ordered “Retrospective” which has six of the ten. Fortunately it had the amazon download facility as soon as you buy the CD, so no waiting. It also has “Played Out” featuring Rumer on added vocals, who deserves a Toppermost herself … but best to wait until after the new album. You’re right on the compared artists, and I’d add Tom Petty, specially on Here Come The Swells. There’s something about the laidback vocal. Then later, assuming it’s chronological, Prefab Sprout came to mind on Bruise On The Sky. A couple of times through today and I’m delighted to be let in on the secret, and I’ve pressed replay on Have You Seen That Girl Again? and Bruise On The Sky about four times.

  6. Amanda Hynan
    Sep 17, 2014

    Great to see this fab review of Pete’s music. I agree wholeheartedly with every word you’ve written, been a massive fan for years.

  7. Armchairtraveller
    Sep 19, 2014

    Top article on a top man – FAME at last Pierre – keep on rockin in the real world!

  8. Keith Shackleton
    Sep 19, 2014

    Thanks to everyone for all the positive comments (and hello Mr. B!).

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