With his first album, Ephrata, Joshua Burnside is attempting a difficult balancing act, by using an often twee genre as a vehicle to smuggle something more subversive. For the most part he succeeds. Don’t get me wrong, I love a banjo as much as the next waistcoat-wearer, but the market is so saturated with folk pop that a guy can’t even watch Ant & Dec’s Saturday Takeaway without being assaulted by fiddles, ukeleles, jaunty whistling and bloody accordions during the ad breaks (Accordions. Possibly the least rock’n’roll instrument on the planet).
Sonically, this album sits firmly in Acoustic Hipster territory. Burnside has parked his musical caravan right next door to Noah & the Whale’s beach hut, across the street from Mumford & Sons’ luxury glamping yurt. Happily he has arrived with some exotic ideas gathered on his travels in Eastern Europe, Africa and both Americas. These are dissonant enough to set him apart from his neighbours. But it’s the lyrics that give the album some proper vim. Because, despite the banjos, Joshua Burnside seems to be quite grumpy.
Ephrata’s ten tracks are prettily constructed nests containing, not chirping songbirds, but angry cuckoos. Burnside’s tremulous vocal delivers some dextrous rhymes and pleasingly caustic observations: Tom Waits or John Lydon would have been happy to have written lines like “I spit butter knives” and “better pickle those fists”. Quite what he’s cross about I’m not sure but on stand out track 26th St it involves “this f*****g country”. His anger is tempered by uncertainty: in The Good Word he asks God whether he should “give up all that quantum s**t and spend all my days spreading the good word and singing your praise” (in the end he decides not to give up drinking and “just wait and see”). This indecision is honest and affecting.
Ephrata is a self-assured record and well worth your time. Burnside has pulled off his balancing act.
For more on Ephrata and Joshua Burnside’s live dates click here.