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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Alex Harvey: The Soldier On The Wall


ALEX HARVEY: THE SOLDIER ON THE WALL (1983)

1) Mitzi; 2) Billy Bolero; 3) Snowshoes Thompson; 4) Roman Wall Blues; 5) The Poet And I; 6) Nervous; 7) Carry The Water; 8) Flowers Mr. Florist; 9) The Poet And I (Reprise).

Perhaps by the time the early Eighties rolled along, Alex was bracing himself to regain his star­dom: with his new band, "The Electric Cowboys", he resumed touring and entered once more into the recording studio. With his tragic, untimely death on February 4, 1982, from a massive heart attack, all hopes were extinguished.

All we have left from this stage in his career is Soldier On The Wall, a posthumous release that puts together semi-finished (or so I hope) tracks from those last sessions and credits them to solo Alex Harvey. And, as is the usual situation with such cases, it is rendered more interesting by the shadow of death that looms, unforeseen, but threatening, over it — most of the songs, whether we want it or not, will tend to associate with the man's demise and acquire an extra mystical aura from the depths of our own subconscious. Which, although gruesome, is still a good thing, be­cause otherwise Soldier On The Wall does not look much like a record that could have restored Harvey's stardom, much less add something truly important to his overall legacy.

In general terms of meaning and atmosphere, it's the same old Alex: a little clownish, a little sad, a little pompous, a little introspective. In terms of arrange­ment, it suffers from an acute case of synthesizer-itis: the ugly Eighties' keyboard sound is all over the record, and the yucky blobs of electronic poison that announce the album opener, 'Mitzi', backed by equally yucky electronic drums, spoil most of the song's pleasures. Zal! Where are you, Zal? 'Billy's Bolero' is an interes­ting attempt at combining martial rhythmics with country-western, but, again, its being domina­ted by that half-dead sound immediately dates it, in the bad sense of the word.

The keyboards temporarily leave the stage on a couple of real obscure covers — Buddy Ebsen and Tennessee Ernie Ford's 'Snowshoe Thompson', a cheerful folkie rave about California's most famous mailman ('mush man mush man mush man go!'), and 'The Poet And I', an instrumental composition by Frank Mills to which Harvey added his own lyrics, a mish-mash of folk imagery loosely based on the works of Robert Burns. Thus do Native America and Old Scotland shake hands over the album's A- and B-side, and the rowdy craziness of the former greatly comple­ments the bagpipe stateliness of the latter (which almost manages to ascend the same height as 'Anthem' one decade prior to it).

Some decently rocking tunes on the second side manage, in addition to these two highlights, to save the album from a complete disaster, but overall, its musical hide leaves a lot to be desired. It's so very sad, for instance, that Harvey never left behind a SAHB version of 'Roman Wall Blues' — a tense, personal, more-than-anti-war song that he first recorded in 1969, with a limp, boring band, and then waited until 1982 to re-record, when its impact was so much subdued by lifeless electronica. Sad, because even through the cheap sci-fi murk of these keyboards it is still possible to hear Alex Harvey the likeable loner, too smart for his own good. But a thumbs down all the same — this is simply not a kind of record to which one will turn frequently as long as all the SAHB catalog is at one's reach.

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