Thursday, 10 January 2019

Al Stewart

Here we go, then, with Al Stewart's early and mid-career albums....

Bedsitter Images (1967)                                

This was the debut album. Bedsitter Images is a lively, very sixties-ish folk-rock song, telling us of life in sixties London. It also uses sweeping string orchestration. I also have to say that the sound on the 2007 remaster is truly outstanding for a recording from 1967. 

Swiss Cottage Manoeuvres is an image-packed, acoustic "story" song which tells of Stewart's relationship with a girl in Swiss Cottage. It is a sad, moving tale. The Carmichaels has several echoes of David Bowie's material from this period, in both its lyrics and vocal delivery. It is a bizarre song about the singer's affair with the unsatisfied Mrs. Carmichael. It is very sixties, but quite ground-breaking in many ways. The same can be said of the jaunty Scandinavian Girl. These songs are all about various love afars and full of honesty and sincerity. There are a lot of observational tales of romance, either autobiographical or looking at the lives of ordinary people. Pretty Golden Hair is once more very David Bowie-ish, about a boy with long hair. Perhaps the Bowie thing is apt as Bowie was memorably on TV talking about his long hair at the time. It gets quite jazzy at one point, musically and lyrically it gets rather Brechtian in its denouement. It is also hard-hitting as the boy turns to male prostitution. Quite a brave song for 1967 indeed. 

Denise At 16 is an acoustic guitar instrumental that is quite beautiful. Samuel, Oh How You've Changed has a melody very similar to Ralph McTell's Streets Of London in its guitar backing and tune. It seems many people have noticed this, as it is pretty obvious. This song was two years before Streets Of London. Either way the song has the same intrinsic folky sadness.

Cleave To Me has an extended, orchestrated, classically-influenced introduction before we get a short, folky and pleasant Cat Stevens-esque song. There are quite a few Stevens influences floating around on this album. 
A Long Way Down From Stephanie goes full on baroque in its harpsichord backing. The Rolling Stones were using this type of backing a lot in the same period. It was de rigeur. Again, the vocal is very David Bowie, and surely Elton John had given this a listen before his Elton John album from 1970. Paul Buckmaster's string production on parts of that album are very similar to those used here. Ivich is a Russian-influenced finger-picking instrumental. Beleeka Doodle Day, despite its odd title, is the most fulfilled song on the album, clocking in at seven minutes, it is another Bowie-style number, both in its folky melody and certainly in its beguiling lyrics. It a pretty adventurous composition for 1967, almost Dylanesque in parts too. There is a lot of full orchestration on the album, sort of folk-baroque, which dates it somewhat and makes the whole thing sound somewhat jaunty, detracting from the often sad, meaningful lyrics. The songs would maybe have been better served with an acoustic, soft folk-rock backing, as indeed Stewart later admitted.

Love Chronicles (1969)

This was Al Stewart's second album and he wisely ditched the string orchestration of his 1967 debut album and went for a more full on folk-rock backing, employing members of Fairport Convention and also Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page on the epic eighteen-minute title track. The result is a far more folky, narrative song-style album. It is far more an early seventies album than the previous one, which was very much of its 1967 time. The front and back cover are decidedly late sixties however.
In Brooklyn is so Dylanesque it almost is Dylan, lyrically and in the electric guitar backing at times. At other times, though, Stewart has his own stamp on it. Old Compton Street Blues references the now gay area of London. This is a tale of Stewart and a girlfriend however. It is not really bluesy, more melodic soft rock, with a lovely drum, bass and both acoustic and electric guitars. The vocal is very David Bowie in style. You can hear Bowie's 1971 Hunky Dory album in this, surely Bowie would have listened to this. This is the influencer in many ways. The Ballad Of Mary Foster is an extended Dylan-influenced folk narrative, full of beguiling, interesting, story-telling lyrics. It was a hard-hitting song that showed considerable development from the first album's material. This was a singer-songwriter really learning his craft. Life And Life Only is a solid, muscularly-backed Beatles-esque  piece of folk rock. This is really good stuff. There is some excellent guitar on it, particularly at the end. I have always had a problem with Stewart's slightly effeminate bleat of a voice on 1976's iconic Year Of The Cat album, but on here, while still high in pitch, it is stronger and more pointed in its diction and delivery.

You Should Have Listened To Al has a lively, solid rock intro and although the voice doesn't quite match the backing, it is a riffy, pleasant, upbeat number. The backing reminds me of the era's folk rock group - obviously Fairport Convention, but also Pentangle and Fotheringay. 
Then comes Love Chronicles, with Jimmy Page supplying guitar backing as Stewart tells us all about his girlfriends, from first kissing Christine at ten years old. It is an autobiographical that tells not only of his love interests but also of his school days. It was quite a controversial song for 1969, graphically telling of his physical encounters. It is a delight to listen to, almost like reading a book. Musically, there are some effective changes of pace which keep the track from getting too one-paced. Never mind Year Of The Cat, this is an excellent album. If you like late sixtes-early seventies folk rock, you will love this. It is well worth tracking it down as I did, you won't regret it. Fifty years on now, this still sounds so vibrant and fresh. Highly recommended.

Zero She Flies (1970)

This was Al Stewart's third album and, like the second one, it was very much a folk album, telling narrative tales, often autobiographical, romantic, but also observational, social and, for the first time, historical. The backing was a gentle, bassy folk rock sound, which was subtle and melodic. A couple of members of folk group Fotheringay played on the album. If anything, though, it was less rock and far more folky than Love Chronicles had been. It also features three somewhat unfinished-sounding tracks. In that respect, as a complete album, it never quite gets there.
My Enemies Have Sweet Voices is actually a bit of a different-sounding opener, having a quirky staccato beat and lots of blues harmonica and Hammond organ. It is as bluesy as Stewart has got thus far. Small Fruit Song is a short acoustic guitar-dominated virtual instrumental, with one pretty pointless verse at the end. Gethsemane, Again is more like the sort of folky, narrative material from the previous album. Again, it is acoustically-backed. The soft rock sound has yet to make an appearance. Burbling is a finger-picking instrumental that continues the low-key beginning to the album. The rock finally arrives on the bassy and catchy Electric Los Angeles Sunset as Stewart sings of the underbelly of Los Angeles urban life , something that is slightly at odds with the rathe pastoral ambience we have had so far. It has vague airs of Chris De Burgh about it in its vocal delivery. It stands out as one of the album's best songs.

Manuscript contains historical references that wander here and there, but include the outbreak of World War 1. It also relates feelings from Stewart's childhood. Musically, it is an acoustic and bass backed melody with a late sixties-early seventies David Bowie style vocal. Black Hill is another short, "semi-song", with acoustic instrumental followed by one short verse. 
Anna is a plaintive acoustic and vocal short number, while Room Of Roots is an intricate slice of acoustic dexterity. This time it is fully instrumental. The title track, Zero She Flies, is a more solid, electric guitar and rock drums backed and full of beguiling lyrics. It is up there with Electric Los Angeles Sunset. It is a shame there weren't more cuts like this on here. There is some excellent electric guitar on the track. With the presence of three extremely short, under-developed numbers, one cannot help but feel this album is somewhat undercooked and not quite the finished article. I find its predecessor by far the more impressive product. This album leaves me feeling just slightly underwhelmed.

Orange (1972)

After the somewhat unfinished feel to Zero She Flies, with its semi-instrumental short songs, this was a more fulfilled complete album. It is a transitional album, though, very much of its time in its David Bowie Hunky Dory era influenced, acoustic rock sound. Rick Wakeman is on piano on both albums as well. This is a light and breezy, soft rock album, but it is all a bit hippy and proggy in many places. Personally, I find it a much more rounded, fully created album than Zero She Flies, despite its obvious contemporary pretensions and haughtiness. It still has a great early seventies appeal and wonderful quality sound too.
You Don't Even Know Me is a lively country-rock meets glam rock number, with some nostalgic lyrics about back in 1967. Amsterdam is another jaunty song with looking back to carefree days in hippy-era Amsterdam. Songs Out Of Clay is a narrative tale with some fine soft rock rhythms, mixing acoustic and electric guitars and utilising a very Bowie-esque vocal. It is very much of its time, but none the less appealing for it. The News From Spain is an excellent, atmospheric proggy folk rock track, with a great bass sound and some swirling, churchy organ. There is also some wonderful keyboard-strings-Spanish guitar interplay. Rick Wakeman's piano is superb throughout the album, it has to be said. Tim Renwick plays the Spanish guitar.

I Don't Believe You is a convincing cover of the Bob Dylan song, with some lovely bass and country style guitar. The instrumental Once An Orange, Always An Orange continues the strange fascination with oranges after the previous album's Small Fruit Song. It contains some intricate finger-picking guitar played over a string backing. It is very classically-influenced. Half way through it changes tone and the guitar becomes deeper and more sonorous. Then at the end it becomes more high-pitched. At times, it has airs of the following year's Tubular Bells. For me, anyway. I'm Falling is a delightful piece of melodic soft rock. Once again, lovely bass work and a beguiling vocal-lyric. It is just a pleasure to listen to it, actually. Sublime sound on the latest remaster. 
Night Of The 4th Of May is a lengthy narrative tale to finish on, about an ex-lover, it is autobiographical. It is again Bowie-ish and the backing is just superb. Personally, I consider this Al Stewart's best album thus far, much better than Zero She Flies.

Past, Present & Future (1973)

This is Al Stewart's most folky album, featuring several narrative, historically-based folk songs bringing to mind Fairport Convention or Pentangle. There is a gentle, melodic folk-rock backing to most tracks. It is very much Stewart's historical folk album. It is an extremely artistically advanced album for 1973.
Old Admirals is a seafaring folk song set against a solid acoustic guitar, bass and drum backing, with some atmospheric strings and brass as well. It is a grandiose song in places. The old early seventies David Bowie vocal stylings are still there, left over from the previous three albums. Warren Harding is an upbeat, quirky song with some echoes of Cockney Rebel in its keyboard sound. It concerns a 1920s President of the USASoho (Needless To Say) has some Dylanesque verbosity in its lyrical delivery and some winning Hammond organ in its insistent beaty tune. Some convincing electric guitar and percussion augment the lively rock sound. The Spanish guitar break in the middle is razor sharp. This was all very credible, thoughtful material and completely different to the glam rock or prog rock that was so prevalent in 1973. The Last Day Of June 1934 is an evocative mid-tempo folk rock song, bravely telling of a time in Adolf Hitler's life from a sad point of view and the execution of Hitler's one-time ally, Ernst Rohm. It is a complex, thought-provoking song. Post World War Two Blues is a rocking number with Dylanesque overtones and some excellent bluesy guitar. It name checks Jimi HendrixDesolation Row and Sgt. Pepper as the sixties are referenced. It also mentions the Suez crisis, the death of Buddy Holly and the Profumo scandal as Stewart autobiographically recalls his growing years.

Roads To Moscow is a lengthy narrative tale of a Russian soldier in 1941 fighting for Russia and captured by The Germans and then by Stalin. Stewart apparently read forty books in researching the song. It is a sombre, mournful, typically Russian-sounding song. It is, not surprisingly, most atmospheric, and contains some excellent, intricate acoustic guitar and a resonating bass. It is also lyrically beautiful at times. As soon as you hear Terminal Eyes you think I Am The Walrus, and, indeed, The Beatles song is the inspiration for the lyrical stream of consciousness and staccato melody. There is an excellent electric guitar part in the middle. The lyrics are rapped out in Dylan meets Lennon style. 
Nostradamus ends the album with over eight minutes of Stewart's predictions of the future. It is the album's only real nod to "prog", but is still very folky. There is an infectious bass, acoustic guitar and drum interplay bit in the middle which is a joy to listen to. Very Led Zeppelin III in places. This was an adult, perfectly created, expertly delivered album. The sound quality is excellent too. Highly recommended.

Modern Times (1975)

This album was the one which saw Al Stewart make the transition from narrative, folk rock singer to being a well-produced, slick, polished, AOR, mainstream radio-friendly artist. Alan Parsons is the producer and he came up with a lush, layered, high quality sound production. The previous album had been full of historical narrative folk tales. Here the songs are more relationship ones and far more commercial in their feel. So begins Al Stewart's classic pop rock classic period, typified by songs that have both a comforting, laid-back feel but also a beguiling lyrical nature. The sound quality on the latest remaster is superb too.
Carol is a melodic polished opener with airs of John Lennon about it, in the vocal delivery and hints of Paul McCartney and Steve Harley in the backing. There are both electric and acoustic guitars interplaying most convincingly. Sirens Of Titan is short, but catchy in its poppy, laid-back feel. What's Going On? is so Beatles-esque and could well have been on Help! or Rubber Soul. Stewart makes it his own, however, with a sumptuous acoustic guitar solo in the middle and some excellent harmonica near the end.  Not The One is a gentle, soft rock ballad. All very melodic and sensitive, thoughtful lyrics.

Next Time has an an acoustic guitar riff straight off Led Zeppelin III and a haunting feel to its quiet vocals. 
The title of Apple Cider Re-Constitution sounds like something off George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, by its title, but it is a vibrant, rocking Dylanesque Blonde On Blonde era number. It is a most appealing, captivating track. The bass and lead guitar and drum sound are all pretty infectious. The Dark And Rolling Sea is a seafaring, folky tale that has its melody based on the old Irish folk song The Maid Of County DownModern Times is an extended melodious soft rock-folky number with more of those enigmatic lyrics. There hints of Dylan here and there on this one too. There is a grandeur to this track, and indeed to the whole album. It is always worth a listen.

Year Of The Cat (1976)

I was never quite sure what to make of this folk-rock-ish album. I always found it had a few prog-rock overtones for me. Was it "prog-pop"? Whatever, it didn't really sit well as punk was beginning to explode all around. Lots of people loved it though, so over the years I have given it the occasional listen. It is certainly a stylish album, quite ahead of its time in many ways. Listening to it again, it always seems to deliver some hidden depths. It also must be noted that this was no one-off album, despite being pretty much the only album he is known for, Stewart had been putting albums out since his folky-hippy debut in 1967. This was his seventh offering.
Lord Grenville is a mysterious song. It sounds by the title as if it should be a Steeleye Span or Fairport Convention song. As it is, it is a mid-pace soft rock ballad, with crystal clear percussion and a plaintive, "serious and thoughtful" vocal delivery. It features some excellent guitar. On The Border begins with Elton John-esque Funeral For A Friend-style piano before the song moves into a Spanish guitar-driven, lively, melodic and quite captivating song. As with all Stewart's songs, they are lyrically fascinating and perplexing, full of imagery and mystique. This is a very "adult" album, ideal for student bedsits, loaded with sensitivity and occasional arty, educated references. Midas Shadow very much falls into the latter category. It is a lovely song, though, with a delicious bass line. This track is sort of CSNY/America's proggy cousin.

Sand In Your Shoes is catchy and sightly more poppy and lively in its tempo, with a lovely sad hook. Despite the pop sensibilities, the old intelligent, observant feel is still there, as it always is throughout the album. Everything on this album is very sophisticated and graceful. I have always felt Stewart's voice was a little too weak, however, and would have preferred a stronger tone on these songs. The instrumentation on all of them is outstanding. There is an enchantment to all the tracks though, despite my reservations about the voice. In many ways, the voice has a quiet, laid-back quality that suits much of the material. If It Doesn't Come Naturally, Leave It is one of the album's rockier numbers with a big, riffy backing. Again, Stewart's voice doesn't quite match up to the punch of the backing. The track has some superb guitar-piano.drum interplay at the end. 

Flying Sorcery features some fetching harmonica, sumptuous bass and a winning melody. It has airs of David Bowie's Hunky Dory in tiny places on the vocal. Broadway Hotel continues the enigmatic style of song, and it features some captivating electric violin, similar to used by Cockney Rebel on their Human Menagerie album three years earlier. One Stage Before is another beguiling number, with more sublime bass. Then there is the iconic title track, Year Of The Cat, known now by many. A copper-bottomed Radio 2 favourite. It is full of the trademark atmosphere and cinematic imagery once more. A great track from an album which, actually, after all these years, is still growing on me. That has to be a good thing.

Time Passages (1978)

Released at the height of punk-new wave, in late 1978, this culturally incongruous album is actually, in retrospect, an excellent one. It was the follow up to the highly successful Year Of The Cat and if anything, is slightly more polished, in that soft-rock style that Stewart had now become synonymous with. The early late sixties-early seventies folky days were now long gone. Stewart's songs have become dignified, sensitive and grandiose in an understated way, if that does not sound too oxymoronic. It is all very dreamy, elegant and classy. Perfect dinner-party background music, but containing hidden depths too, if listened to with full concentration. Every song actually sounds like a mini-epic in its own way.

Time Passages is superbly lush, with a winsome vocal/melody and some sumptuous tenor saxophone. Of its type, it is a most impressive composition. Valentina Way is an upbeat, rocky number, with hints of Wings about it. It is all very West Coast AOR, however, and hardly de rigeur for 1978. It is far more Chris De Burgh than The Clash or The Jam, both of whom put out new albums in the same month. Their audience was not Al Stewart's, however. This was very much adult, respectable music, without any any contemporary concerns. Taking its chronological cultural position aside, it sounds a far better album now than it ever did in 1978, when I despised it. Life In Dark Water is a solemn, slow-paced but streamlined and elegant rock song, full of airy guitar and crystal clear percussion. It is even a bit prog-rock in style, something Stewart has always had in his locker. It also has echoes of Supertramp in it, for me. A Man For All Seasons has a feeling of the Year Of The Cat material. It is a melodic, appealing and serious song, with lyrical hints of Jackson Browne. It features historical references to Henry VIII and Thomas More. It sounds very mid-seventies to me, as if from a few years earlier. It is a close to an epic as Al Stewart gets.

Almost Lucy is an upbeat, rhythmic and catchy, vaguely Latin-influenced number with more of Stewart's mysterious and interested character-driven lyrics. 
The Palace Of Versailles is a suitably grandiose. It is another historical song, this time about the French Revolution. It is a bit Elton John-sounding in places. Timeless Skies is a thoughtful, gentle rock ballad. Song On The Radio is a perfect slice of saxophone-powered AOR. End Of The Day has hints of America's Ventura Highway in its acoustic intro, just for a split second. It is a tranquil, suitably "sundown" in ambience number to end this tasteful album on. A classy as all the album has been.

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Bob Dylan
Cat Stevens

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