Wired To The Moon (1984)
Bombollini/Touché d'Amour/Shine, Shine, Shine/Wired To The Moon/Reasons/I Don't Know What It Is But I Love It/Ace Of Hearts/Holding Out/Winning
Chris Rea had a strange career thus far. This was his sixth album and, apart from some popularity for the songs Fool (If You Think It's Over) and I Can Hear Your Heart Beat he had been something of a commercial disaster, not fitting in with either new wave or new romantic trends. The mid-eighties rise of "adult", "wine bar" music helped him succeed more than he had, but that would be more in 1986 and 1987. His follow-up to this, the Springsteen-esque, rocky Shamrock Diaries was far more successful than this was. He was still treading water at this point. This album did very little and has subsequently been almost forgotten about.
Bombollini is a six-minute plus opener that gets in on the contemporary trend for South American pipe music. It has a few lyrics, but not many and doesn't really get anywhere, suffering from poor, muffled, unremastered sound. Much better is the summery, white reggae of Touché d'Amour. Rea's band pull off the reggae rhythms quite convincingly, it has to be said. Shine, Shine, Shine epitomises that late night ambience, the whole low volume background music thing.
Wired To The Moon gets the drummer working a bit, with more of a regular mid-pace rock beat. Rea's growly but melodic voice just washes over you on these songs. He really has a pleasing voice. Reasons is a great track, sort of Rea meeting Mark Knopfler and Bruce Springsteen and coming up with a really infectious rock song. Good stuff.
I Don't Know What It Is But I Love It is similar to some of the material Elton John was putting out around the same time. It is upbeat and hooky, particularly on the rather cheesy but infectious chorus. On so many Chris Rea albums there is always one superb song. On this one it is the marvellous, evocative Ace Of Hearts. It is packed full of melodic emotion. It also breaks out into some impressive rock half way through. Good old Chris, he could always come up with an understated classic. Holding Out is another Elton John-ish, piano-driven number. Winning is a big, muscular bluesy Dire Straits-ish rocker to end with, clocking in at another six minutes. It features lots of great guitar including Rea's trademark slide.
You know, this album should have done much better than it did. Thankfully for Rea, his next few albums would redress the balance in his favour.
Shamrock Diaries (1985)
Steel River/Stainsby Girls/Chisel Hill/Josephine/One Golden Rule/All Summer Long/Stone/Shamrock Diaries/Love Turns To Lies/Hired Gun
It was 1985 now, and Chris Rea had released seven albums, would you believe. None of them had sold many copies at all, dispiritingly for him and his record company. He changed things around a bit here. This was his most "stadium rock"-ish of his offerings so far, the one that had him sounding like a Middlesbrough Springsteen. The synth pop and new romantic keyboard influences had gone now and he was becoming more of a rocker. This was the first time I took notice of him, back then. There was some quality material on here, songs that made you sit up and take notice. Many of his albums contained just the one absolutely copper-bottomed great track. This one had at least five of them.
Steel River is a Rea classic, starting off as a slow piano-driven ballad it launches into a huge gospel soul brassy chorus. Lyrically, it is a moving song about his home town of Middlesbrough. I have to say, though, that I prefer the version on the album of re-workings, New Light Through Old Windows. The same applies to another Rea anthem, the Springsteen-esque Stainsby Girls, a tribute to his wife, who attended Stainsby Secondary Modern School in Middlesbrough. It was this track that first brought my attention to Rea. It is an excellent slide guitar-dominated, riffy rocker with great lyrics. In 1985, this was what I wanted to hear, after several years of Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and Culture Club forced into my earshot.
The quality continues on the beautifully-evocative, soulful Chisel Hill. This was Chris Rea at his moving best. I love this track. It is very Springsteen-influenced you have to say, with touches of Van Morrison too. Josephine is a sumptuous ballad that would go on to become a Rea standard in live sets. One Golden Rule ploughs the same furrow, although it was still 1985, so a bit of a synth backing prevails on the surprisingly mournful All Summer Long.
Stone is a solid, powerful rock ballad. This brooding, soulful, atmospheric ambience is found on Shamrock Diaries as well, enhanced by some jazzy, wine-bar saxophone. Chris Rea has always had an excellent voice and this song shows that, particularly. Love Turns To Lies is hewn from the same quarry. This is actually quite a sombre album, especially this latter half and the introspective, reflective gloom is not lifted by the moody eight minutes of Hired Gun. Very Brothers In Arms. Ironically, that album didn't come out until a month after this one. It breaks out into an Elton John-style chorus. Rea gives us a searing slide guitar solo too. Don't get me wrong, this is a very good song and this was a good album, but it is a very sombre one. It was Rea's finest album thus far too.
The latest release contains some interesting bonus material:-
Dancing Shoes is a groovy little saxophone-enhanced jazzy number, full of laid-back atmosphere, while the “sax mix” of Stainsby Girls is rousing, and has one of the guitar soloes augmented by a superb sax one. Sunrise is a pleasant piece of lightly funky easy rock. The instrumental And When She Smiles is most evocative and rides in a grandiosely infectious piano riff. It features a nice slow guitar solo too.
September Blue would re-appear again on the Dancing With Strangers album, a few years later. It is soulfully vibrant and nicely organ-driven. Everytime It Rains has a bit of a disco riff to it and has vague echoes of Elton John’s eighties material, and Sting too. It is a good track. Listening to these I feel the original album would have been enhanced by the presence of some of them, as they are quality songs. These days, of course, you can just play the whole lot. The stonking live performance of Midnight Blue from 1983’s Water Sign album is a delight as well.
On The Beach (1986)
On The Beach/Little Blonde Plaits/Giverny/Lucky Day/Just Passing Through/It's All Gone/Hello Friend/Two Roads/Light Of Hope/Auf Immer Und Ewig
After the Springsteen-esque Shamrock Diaries, Chris Rea diversified a little on this one, creating that relaxed, easy-listening ambience that would come to be something many people associated him with to the expense of his more rocky, bluesy material. This is archetypal slow and reflective "adult" Chris Rea. There are lots of listeners around who want nothing more from him. Forget his searing slide guitar, just give us On The Beach. As often the case with Chris Rea over the years, though, you feel he doesn't quite know which direction to take. This was definitely the start of his "easy listening/AOR" period. This is very much an album for a hot afternoon or a lazy late summer night.
As with many Chris Rea albums, there is one absolute killer track on it. Here it is the sumptuous On The Beach which has been recorded several times by Rea. This one is probably the best, its syncopated jazzy rhythms played slightly slower and that summery bossa nova feel coming across utterly irresistibly. Rea's voice is as warm as a summer's afternoon on this. It is one of his finest moments. Some sound effects of waves gently lapping on the shore lead into the similarly laid-back Little Blonde Plaits. The soporific, gently hypnotic vibe continues on the beautiful Giverny, which breaks out into a lovely, rhythmic number a minute or so in.
Lucky Day doesn't up the pace either, being similarly slow in pace and featuring some delicious Spanish guitar. Its influence is vaguely Latin in places. The guitarist in Rea is never far from the surface however, and some excellent playing enhances the sleepy Just Passing Through. Some classically-influenced piano makes an interjection as well.
The old "side two" begins with some upbeat eighties synth pop/rock with the album's liveliest number so far in It's All Gone. Despite its liveliness, it is no Stainsby Girls or Steel River. Although it has a serious message about the decline of Rea's home town of Middlesbrough, that gets a bit lost in the poppy backing, unfortunately. It is over seven minutes long and features some excellent instrumental improvisation at the end. Hello Friend is a moving Rea heartbreaker. He does this sort of thing so well, so sensitively.
Two Rounds has some funky guitar and brass and a solid beat and is slightly more punchy than a lot of the album's material. Both Light Of Hope and Auf Immer Und Ewig (Forever And Ever) see a return to the slow, reflective pace of most of the album. Although this album barely gets beyond walking pace, it is still a pleasant listen.
The bonus material from this album's sessions include the gently summery (what a surprise!) strains of Look Out For Me; the original recording of Let's Dance which has a calypso-like backing and easy vocal and is completely different to the punchy, catchy one everyone knows that appeared on Dancing With Strangers the following year; the synthy but bluesy and bassy instrumental If Anybody Asks You with its dub-reggae influences; the laid-back, dreamy Freeway, another pleasant, relaxing instrumental in Bless Them All and the quirky, Dire Straits-ish Crack That Mould.
Dancing With Strangers (1987)
Joys Of Christmas/I Can't Dance To That/Windy Town/Gonna Buy A Hat/Curse Of The Traveller/Let's Dance/Que Sera/Josie's Tune/Loving You Again/That Girl Of Mine/September Blue
Personally, I think this was Chris Rea's best album thus far. It was his most full on rock offering, more so than Shamrock Diaries, more lively and upbeat in its feel, and less laid-back than On The Beach. Although we were still in the eighties, the album is refreshingly guitar-driven. Yes, there are a few synthesisers floating around but they do not overwhelm as they do on many eighties albums. It is still a credible rock album, for the most part.
Joys Of Christmas is certainly not the festive song one might expect it to be - it is a deep, bluesy number with Rea semi-speaking his gruff vocal about the "joys of Christmas, Northern style". It is a great track, enhanced by a searing slide guitar solo. I Can't Dance To That is another blues-influenced rocker with a great riff and featuring Rea's first reference to "the road to hell". The Dire Straits-ish Windy Town is packed full of Northern atmosphere. Rea really starts to create an identity from his roots on this album. There are touches of Al Stewart about this one too.
Gonna Buy A Hat keeps the riffy rock coming thick and fast on another appealing, punchy number. There is a bit of Bruce Springsteen in the Born In The USA era about this, sort of Darlington County. It uses a solid brass section too. The pace slows down on the Celtic-influenced Curse Of The Traveller, although after a mysterious, haunting pipe intro it breaks out into a slow pace but muscular bluesy rock ballad. Another great piece of guitar work adorns the track. That brassy, jaunty catchiness is quick to return, though, on the popular Let's Dance. This is a track that Rea has recorded several times. This is a slightly slower, more soulful version of it. It is the original, I think.
Que Sera is a mix of blues harmonica and Latin rhythms and a sort of Bo Diddley beat. There are slight echoes of Springsteen's She's The One every now and again, just vaguely, in the drum rhythm. Josie's Tune is a short, entrancing Celtic pipe interlude. It gently merges into the Van Morrison-style mystic intro to Loving You Again, which eventually bursts into a metronomic, pounding but soulful rock song. A bit synthy, but never mind. That Girl Of Mine is a jaunty, slightly rockabilly number with a nice catchy bass line and confident, ebullient vocal.
September Blue ends the album with a tender, emotive ballad. It was the album's only example of Rea's ability to write a touching love song. The main bulk of the album was vibrant rock-ish material. That, for me, was a good thing, despite the fact that I like his love songs. This was clearly intended to be an upbeat album. Another sleepy one like On The Beach would typecast him somewhat. Chris Rea was starting to prove his versatility. He was never a one-trick pony, and still isn't.
There are several non-album tracks from this album's sessions. They include the catchy, riff-powered rock of Yes I Do; the beguiling instrumental Se Sequi; the laid-back, sleepy, summery groove of I'm Taking The Day Out; another relaxing instrumental in Danielle's Breakfast; some reggae-influenced instrumental this time in Rudolph's Rotor Arm; an On The Beach summery, seductive ballad in Smile; the vaguely Springsteen-esque (later era) and Mark Knopfler-influenced folky blues of I Don't Care Anymore; another instrumental, this time guitar-driven, in Donahue's Broken Wheel and another version of Josephine, this time an upbeat, funky one with an extended intro. Check out that great bass on it.
New Light Through Old Windows (1988)
(in brackets are the albums the songs originally appeared on)/Let's Dance (from "Dancing with Strangers")/Working On It (single)/Ace Of Hearts (from "Wired To The Moon")/Josephine (from "Shamrock Diaries")/Candles (from "Water Sign")/On The Beach (from "On The Beach")/Fool (If You Think It's Over) (from "Whatever Happened To Benny Santini?")/I Can Hear Your Heartbeat (from "Water Sign")/Shamrock Diaries (from "Shamrock Diaries")/Stainsby Girls (from "Shamrock Diaries")/Windy Town (from "Dancing With Strangers")/Driving Home For Christmas (single)/Steel River (from "Shamrock Diaries")
Funnily enough, this was the first Chris Rea album I ever bought, on the back of liking the Stainsby Girls single. At the time I didn't realise, initially, that the album was made up of re-recordings of tracks previously issued on other albums. Many artists have done this sort of thing later in their careers, but this was a comparatively early and brave move for Rea. What is good about these recordings is that they have a great sound to them (the early albums all suffered comparatively from poor-ish sound) so the album stands on its own feet as a credible one, and not one of re-hashes.
It was actually marketed as The Best Of Chris Rea: New Light Through Old Windows, so I just assumed it was a "best of" compilation. It took me quite a while to realise it wasn't quite that straightforward. For a long time, these were the only versions of these songs I knew.
Let's Dance is big, brassy and infectious and Working On It is full of trademark Rea slide guitar riffs. Ace Of Hearts is a beautiful, evocative laid-back ballad, packed full of soul and Dire Straits-esque guitar backing. Josephine is one in what was now typical Chris Rea style, with his gruff voice dominating over a vaguely summery, reggae-ish backing.
Candles is not as keyboard-dominated as it is on the Water Sign album and features an excellent Knopfler-influenced guitar. On The Beach has a superb sound to it, with that catchy shuffling intro taking centre stage. Rea's voice on this is superb, as indeed is the song's whole ambience.
Both Fool (If You Think It's Over) and I Can Hear Your Heartbeat had been quite popular semi-hits, but had not been ubiquitous enough for me not to think these were their original incarnations. They both sound great on here anyway. My two favourite tracks have always been the Springsteen-esque Stainsby Girls and the epic Steel River. Both of them, for me, are far better on these recordings than their originals. "Dancing to Motown, making love with a Carole King record playing...". Great line.
Shamrock Diaries is punchier here, but unfortunately lacks the saxophone that enhanced is original recording. Windy Town is a most atmospheric number with a real North-East England feel. Oh, and then there is Driving Home For Christmas. Yes, it also has bags of atmosphere, but, of course, it can only be played once or twice in December and that's it.
The Road To Hell (1989)
The Road To Hell (Part One)/The Road To Hell (Part Two)/You Must Be Evil/Texas/Looking For A Rainbow/Your Warm And Tender Love/Daytona/That's What They Always Say/I Just Wanna Be With You/Tell Me There's A Heaven
This was an album which gained Chris Rea considerable critical acclaim, after several years of releasing poppy, commercial AOR rock. He now let his blues and gospel influences out and his record company thought it would flop. It became his biggest selling album. It had that laid-back Dire Straits on Brothers In Arms sort of appeal that was popular in the mid-late eighties.
The two incarnations of The Road To Hell are both superbly atmospheric in their own way. The first begins with windscreen wiper sound effects and snippets of radio traffic updates before Rea arrives with the sort of bluesy gospel vocal he would use a lot on 2005's Blue Guitars project. Then the instantly recognisable drum beat and guitar of the very Dire Straits-esque style kick in and Rea tells it "ain't no technological breakdown, this is the road to hell..." as he drives round the M25. It is one of the best songs of its type of all time. Rea contributes some excellent slide guitar at the end too. The song is one of his finest moments.
You Must Be Evil is a huge, bassy, thumping piece of slow burning bluesy rock, with Rea's evocative voice again laconically giving the song such character. He really is a most underrated, often misunderstood artist. He is far more than a throwaway, easy listening AOR merchant. The blues are deep in his soul, lyrically and musically. Check out the searing blues guitar on this track. Chris Rea can play the blues, ain't no doubt about that. Texas is very much a pointer to some of Rea's later blues material, despite its late eighties beat. It is beautifully understated and full of atmosphere. That killer guitar is here again, too. This is quality stuff. Listening to it again, I had sort of forgotten just how good it was.
Looking For A Rainbow is seven minutes of superb Chris Rea rock, yet again full of character and that guitar enhancing it. Your Warm And Tender Love continues very much in the same vein. The infectious shuffle of Daytona is back to a Dire Straits groove again, particularly on the guitar. The drum sound on here, as on all the album, is immensely powerful. That's What They Aways Say is an upbeat, pleasant rocker. I Just Wanna Be With You is a romantic, melodic number, while the album ends with the heavily orchestrated and moving ballad Tell Me There's A Heaven.
Chris Rea has produced many fine albums, this is up there as one of his very best.
The non-album tracks from this album's sessions include the rhythmic, slightly swampy vibe of He Should Know Better; the gentle instrumental 1975 and yet another version of Josephine, this time with a bassy, dance-ish but commercial beat to it.