Saturday, 20 April 2013
102 The Best Of ... - Al Stewart
Purchased : 9 September 1988
Tracks : Year Of The Cat / On The Border / If It Doesn't Come Naturally, Leave It / Time Passages / Almost Lucy / Merlin's Time / Valentina Way / Running Man / Here In Angola / Roads To Moscow / Rumours Of War
This was purchased from Woolworth's in Ashton-under-Lyne at a sales price. I only knew one of the songs - I think you can guess which one - but at £2.99 it seemed worth a punt.
This compilation was released in 1985 after Al had clocked up 10 studio albums plus one live album with a clutch of new studio tracks. His first 5 albums were released on Columbia without charting ( those were the days eh ? ) and are only represented here by one later live recording. Thus this sample is drawn from his most commercially successful period on RCA from 1976 onwards and mainly runs in chronological order.
Therefore we kick off with Al's most ( some would say only ) celebrated song , "Year Of The Cat" a perennial radio favourite and a transatlantic hit in 1976 ( number 8 in America, a modest 31 in Britain ). The chokingly melancholic melody was recycled from an unreleased song about Tony Hancock written in 1966 for this mysterious tale, written in the second person , of a ( presumably wealthy ) tourist abandoning his plans when seduced by a hippy chick in an unnamed country. To compound the enigma , as any Chinese person would tell you there is no year of the cat. The filmic sweep of the song is underlined by the references to Peter Lorre and Bogart. Alan Parsons 's production is pin sharp on the lengthy instrumental passages with solos for piano, acoustic guitar, electric guitar and saxophone. It's a stonewall classic and a daunting start for the rest of the album to match in quality.
"On The Border" was the follow-up hit in the States though not over here where Al remains a one-hit wonder . It introduces us to Al the historian as it's set in the Spanish Civil War but it's more about the inevitability of change ( appropriately enough for 1976 ) -"The spirit of the century telling us that we're all standing on the border". The music is a restless mixture of sweeping synths and exquisite Spanish guitar perfectly in keeping with the theme.
The third track from "Year Of The Cat" is the wordy "If It Doesn't Come Naturally Leave It" which ironically started out as a song about writer's block then developed into a morose tale of two lost souls getting it on. There's some good Hammond organ and guitar work amid the shifting time signatures but it's just a bit too Elton John for my tastes with its Taupin-esque introspection and occasional awkward phrasing.
"Time Passages" was the title track of his next LP and does sound like an attempt to re-write "Cat" at similar length. It worked in the States reaching number 7. A mellow reflection on ageing-"the things you lean on are things you don't last" , it could be read as a continuation of the Cat storyline with the girl mentioned in the last verse an hallucinatory memory. As smooth an example of late 70s FM rock as you're ever likely to hear it's just a little too bland to satisfy.
Strangely this album eschews the follow-up US hit for two more LP tracks. "Almost Lucy" is the tale of a nightclub performer ( what she actually does is unspecified ) out of love with her work but stoic set to chattering percussion and more impressive Spanish guitar work. The sad chorus means the upbeat ending to the story is wrongfooting.
Running length considerations mean the side ends with a short track from his less successful 1980 album "24 Carrots". It's hard to imagine many of his American fans making much sense of a song eulogising a Merrie England that never actually existed. It's set to a beautiful acoustic guitar line with only some discreet synth work even hinting of the eighties. It's defiantly timeless it's only fault being its brevity.
Side Two returns to the "Time Passages" LP for "Valentina Way" a relatively flimsy song about a jilted lover who takes Al's advice a la Fool If You Think It's Over and leaves town for pastures new over a backing track that sounds more than a little like ELO's Turn To Stone. There's no real chorus to it and it's the least memorable track on the LP.
Then it's back to "24 Carrots" for "Running Man" ( nothing to do with the Stephen King story which it predates ) the tense but morally neutral tale of a Nazi fugitive being pursued through South America perhaps inspired by the ongoing search for Dr Mengele. It's quite lengthy but retains your interest with some scorching guitar and nimble drum work.
"Here In Angola" is one of five 1981 studio tracks bundled with three sides of live work on the "Live/Indian Summer" double album. I assumed this was about foreign mercenaries in Africa but it turns out "Angola" was only used because it rhymes with "Francis Ford Coppola" ( although it only does in Al's mispronunciation). The song is actually about dealing with a friend who's converted to a new faith and is trying to convert you. It's a jolly enough romp with the music suggesting that Al had become familiar with the recent work of Dire Straits.
"Roads To Moscow" comes from one of the live sides and is a 1981 recording of a song from his Columbia album, "Past Present And Future". From the audience response to the first few guitar notes it's a well-chosen favourite. It's a perfect illustration of Al's earlier penchant for historical epics, an eight minute sweep through the experiences of an ordinary Russian soldier in the Second World War from the early debacles through to the march on Berlin and grim aftermath in Siberia for detoxification. Starting with just acoustic guitar and balalaika ( I'm guessing ) the song proceeds with a military beat and builds with ominous organ, exquisite violin and choral vocals backing Al's laconic delivery. Occasionally he does struggle to cram the words into the see-saw melody but that's a very minor quibble.
The most recent track here, "Rumours Of War" from his 1984 LP "Russians And Americans" ( the last to chart on either side of the Atlantic ) is also a corker. Apart from the odd glissando on acoustic and occasional three note bass interjection it's all played on synth with a merciless sledgehammer beat. In a way we're back where we started with Al meeting another mysterious girl on a beach but instead of a free-spirited feline this one's deeply troubled by the world around her and offers nothing in the way of escape- "You say there's a storm that can't be delayed and lately it seems to be coming this way". The piping keyboard riff does now have unfortunate similarities to The Final Countdown but that shouldn't be held against this still-unsettling song.
This compilation brought the curtain down on Al's association with RCA and his time as a big-selling artist. He has sporadically released albums since then but music is now juggled with a successful wine business - his 2000 LP "Down In The Cellar" is a concept album about it - and he's strictly a cult concern once again. We will meet him again here but not for a long while. I suppose that's the danger with buying compilations of artists you don't know that well - the fear that the compilers have got the selection exactly right and only disappointment awaits if you drill down to the original LPs. Whether or not that's the case with Al I still don't know (memo to self !) .