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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Alex Harvey: The Mafia Stole My Guitar


1) Don's Delight; 2) Back In The Depot; 3) Wait For Me Mama; 4) The Mafia Stole My Guitar; 5) Shakin' All Over; 6) The Whalers (Thar She Blows); 7) Oh Spartacus!; 8) Just A Gigolo / I Ain't Got Nobody.

Harvey's first true solo album in seven years, despite being recorded with an entirely different band, picks up exactly where Rock Drill left us off: less humor and goofiness, more torment and introspection. Perhaps sensing that almost no distance was left to run, Alex continues to concen­trate on long, semi-confessional epics, somewhat poor on musical ideas but very rich on lyrics (which you can't make out anyway, since the older he got, the more prominently he retreated back to his Scottish accent).

And it's a success. Over the years spent with the SAHB, Harvey gradually completed his trans­formation from funny clown to sad clown, but where the funny clown was hilariously sarcastic, the sad clown now reaches serious depths that the first decade of Harvey's career never even hin­ted at. The Mafia Stole My Guitar is an honest, personal, and gradually more and more captiva­ting piece of work; I miss Cleminson sorely — and so, apparently, did Harvey himself, given that he even inserted an indirect grudge on the subject into the very title of the record — and new gui­tarist Matthew Cang, although competent, merely supplies the riffs without being the determining force in the band; but the fact of the matter is that this particular record can live and not die with­out Zal's presence, when something like The Joker Is Wild never could.

Of course, Harvey wouldn't be Harvey if the record were wiped clear of its wildcards: Louis Pri­ma's 'Just A Gigolo/I Ain't Nobody' sternly reminds the listener that lounge entertainment still is, and will always be, Harvey's musical cradle, and the over-arranged, wildly futuristic arrangement of 'Shakin' All Over' may be one of the weirdest tracks Alex ever cut — but also effective, since, now that I think of it, the song's chuggin' riffage as originally practiced by Johnny Kidd and then the Who, just begs for a little "sci-fi treatment".

But the bulk of the record is occupied by the epics I mentioned — six minutes for 'Back In The Depot', five for the title track, seven each for 'Wait For Me Mama' and 'The Whalers'. Written as relatively simple, slow-to-mid-tempo "singer-songwriter" style panoramas, occasionally changing keys ('Back In The Depot' picks up speed at the end, 'The Whalers' turns into an aggressive rocker midway through before calming down again), occasionally built on ferocious hard riffage (title track), I can still see how many people would find them boring; they display neither the manic energy of a Springsteen nor the cool chops of a classic era prog-rock band.

In fact, they all depend on whether one has succeeded in getting Harvey's quintessential charisma under one's skin or not. Assessing the lyrics might help; 'The Whalers', for instance, uses the whaling process as a barely concealed metaphor for the vanity of fame and success ('I'll throw the carcass on the boil, sell my soul for bloody oil'). But one doesn't even need much English, I guess, to get the impression that this is a level of rock theater dangerously bordering on real life depres­sion and disillusionment. Throughout, Harvey sings without a single trace of the recklessness and invigoration of old — it's all painful, so much so that in places, the singing almost dissolves into laryngeal gulps and growls. But it's all meaningful, and I'm willing to buy into it.

So it's essentially that kind of a record where the brain cannot help you all that much — the only serious "musical creativity" goes into 'Shakin' All Over', everything else has to do with self-pity and world weariness and poor health and Nazareth. But I do feel for the man, and I understand self-pity and world weariness and poor health and even Nazareth, and 'The Whalers' at least is beautiful in its ugliness, enough to shed a tear or two and to warrant a thumbs up, with the brain gallantly ceasing the right of final decision to the emotional reaction. This might just be the most proverbial­ly "sincere" album from Harvey, and by the age of 44, everyone has a right to record a proverbially sincere album and expect some love and respect for it.

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