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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Al Stewart: Bedsitter Images


AL STEWART: BEDSITTER IMAGES (1967)

1) Bedsitter Images; 2) Swiss Cottage Manoeuvres; 3) The Carmichaels; 4) Scandinavian Girl; 5) Pretty Gold Hair; 6) Denise At 16; 7) Samuel, Oh How You've Changed!; 8) Cleave To Me; 9) A Long Way Down From Stephanie; 10) Ivich; 11) Beleeka Doo­dle Day.

Alastair Ian Stewart narrowly missed the chance to become the leading voice in fantasy folk; his first single, released for Decca in 1966, was called 'The Elf' and is frequently quoted as one of the first, if not the very first, Tolkien-inspired song to get a commercial release. The song is fairly cute, but either Stewart was afraid of losing the field to Marc Bolan in the long run, or he simply percei­ved the silliness of it all, or perhaps he got ridiculed by either Dylan or Simon, the former of whom he revered and the latter was good friends with.

Whatever the reason, in 1967 he rebooted his career, signed up with CBS, and put up his own mo­dest claim, one that is at once completely transparent and yet, rather hard to put an untremb­ling finger on. Much of Bedsitter Images sounds like it belongs on Nuggets II — pop-style Brit-folk with a slight mystical-magical tinge — but we are most certainly not in the realm of the three minute single, even though only a few tunes violate that rule technically. Dissecting Bedsitter Images into the sum of its influences is useful, and defining it as an album that could only appear in 1967 is insightful, yet it has its own voice, too, and, although Stewart was still way far from being recognized as a solitary force in pop music, this is also an album that could only have been recorded by the likes of Al Stewart.

Since Stewart came from the folk scene, echoes of Dylan were unavoidable, but they are mostly felt in the decision to push ahead with a few long songs (most notably, the grand seven minutes of 'Beleeka Doodle Day'), and in the lyrical influence, although it should be noted that Stewart never followed Dylan in his beat escapades and weirdass linguistic experiments; clearly, it is the early acoustic Dylan, not yet free from the clutches of romanticism, that serves as Al's beacon.

Paul Si­mon, with whom Al had even shared living space a little while back, is also a large pre­sence, and almost directly responsible, I think, for the youthful enchanted prance of the title track, which is like a slightly more serious and responsible brother to 'The 59th Street Bridge Song' (al­though the steady, monotonous fall of the verse lyrics is more Dylan than Simon). On the other hand, both Simon and Stewart owe a common debt to the folkie scene in general — the age-ho­noured traditional melody elements, the gallantry/chivalry touch for the love songs, the general in­telligence and culture stamp on the singing voice etc.

But occasionally, Stewart also goes beyond that in trying to merge those medieval influences with the relevant Brit-poppiness of the day, and so it should be no surprise that right after 'Swiss Cottage Manoeu­vres', which is both lyrically and melodically reminiscent of Dylan's '4th Time Around', we segue into 'The Carmichaels', thematically much more of a Ray Davies song (and, coincidentally, with its subject matter of a bored cheating housewife, also presages 'Mrs. Ro­binson'). Here, he shows that he can be mean and sardonic, too, behind that innocent stare.

But not for long, of course. Overall, Bedsitter Images is hopelessly lost in romance, whether it be old-fashioned, theatrical romance ("Maid, truly I see now, it must be a long way down, and with love's bud shorn must all dalliance hither crumble and wither" — Sir Thomas Malory, eat your heart out!), or some typically Sixties' attempt at finding radically new ways of searching for the same old meaning of life ('Scandinavian Girl'). And, like a true folkie pro, he does not neglect the duty of showcasing his guitar playing skills, with two non-outstanding, but quite pretty instru­mentals ('Denise At 16', 'Ivich').

Now comes the odd part. Most people, including Stewart himself, have always thought that CBS pretty much ruined the record by drowning out Al's introspective sound with Alexander Faris' or­chestral ar­rangements. I disagree. Obviously, they were merely trying to follow the latest trend, the one stating that pop artists performing in romantic genres go down well with symphonic treat­ment (see the Moody Blues' Days Of Future Past for further examples), but most of the arrange­ments are in very good taste, and never really distract from the essence of the songs. It is not just a bunch of syrupy strings tacked on as an afterthought — strings, pianos, horns, flutes, chimes, harps, Al really got the works here, and no two arrangements really sound the same.

For instance, 'Samuel, Oh How You've Changed!' is not very original as far as such melodies go, and it is up to the cute harp plucking to push it up in the beauty department. The military fanfares add a whole new dimension to 'Swedish Cottage Manoeuvres'. And the piano arpeggios, rising hi­gher and higher all through the duration of the chorus of 'Bedsitter Images', are just about the best aspect of that song as a whole — a magnificent melodic touch which turns the song from a com­petent exercise in Simon-izing into something of near-epic proportions. Plus, it is all handled quite intelligently; the album's magnum opus, 'Beleeka Doodle Day', does not get any orchestral ba­cking, just acoustic guitars and a morose organ laying down a wintery pattern in the back­ground, because strings would not have added anything significant to this kind of sound.

The album is truly flawless. It simply does not aspire to all that much — like most of Al's records, its ambitions are limited, and it prefers to capitalize on breakthroughs made by other people ra­ther than try its own. It is also way «fluffier» than his subsequent efforts, but there is nothing wrong with having too many stars in your eyes if you generate them yourself instead of buying them wholesale like mass-produced contact lenses. Intelligent lyrics, beautiful voice, competent guitar playing, inventive arrangements — a classic example of «Snubbed First Effort», to be dus­ted off and reappraised once Father Time readjusts the necessary balance.

4 comments:

  1. This review is pressing me to give this album another listen, and to focus in on certain things you named like those piano arpeggios. That's what a good review is!

    Are you planning to review some more of Al's albums? I'm curious to see where you go, after giving this one such high praise.

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  2. Wow, what a surprise to see Al Stewart reviewed! I hope that you get the chance to examine some of his other work - the first one was almost certainly the weakest and most inconsistent.

    And in the interest of correctness at the risk of pedantry, the lyrics are "love's bud shorn" not "love's burnt shores"

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  3. By gum, you're right. "Love's bud shorn" is definitely better than "burnt shore". That's what you get when relying on amateurish Internet transcriptions.

    For the record, once I start with an artist, I'm not done until I'm through with all or most of his output. Expect "Love Chronicles" in due time, and more.

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  4. I share the earlier surprise to see Al Stewart reviewed here, looked for it in the old site and never occurred to me to look here till I remembered that you are doing the Alphabet thing, wow, what a project, I hope posterity thanks you for this monumental effort.

    I share your views on the orchestral arrangements. I did see some negative comments elsewhere about the song Pretty Gold Hair (actually sung as Pretty Gold-en Hair) being over-orchestrated. It flew in the face of what attracted me to the song in the first place. I myself was never a fan and merely tolerated a hostel mate playing Modern Times endlessly in the mid 80s without falling for it, my head was too busy with Tull, Floyd, The Who and Zep to pay too much attention to someone as soft voiced as Al.

    Fast forward 30 years and with a more accepting mentality, I expanded my repertoire (thanks in no small measure to your "old site" that I visit several times a day and after each listen to ANY album) and on a rainy afternoon drive navigated my media player to the first letter of the alphabet and and Al Stewart's first album almost by default.

    The orchestration in the 5th song hit me harder than the wall of rain that moved my car almost sideways a couple of months ago. I ended up playing it 15 more times that day and then endlessly for the next several weeks. Even during my misguided youth I never played The Wall or Zep IV that many times. So this sort of impact on a grizzled veteran of music from the pre-80s is not an everyday occurrence.

    Still I am a reductionist by nature and I try and break it down so I can communicate my internal process to other people at least to give them an idea of what it is that got me, even if I cannot convince them of the worthiness of the content of my thoughts. Very similar to your own approach to reviewing albums, how you try and convey the immediacy of your thoughts in all its raw energy to get the message across.

    Anyway, back to the song in question, what struck me was the surface level contradiction between the grimness of the content and the gay, lighthearted clarinet and sax overdubs. To me, this sharpens the impact of the song and is hence an enrichment to the artistic experience. Not over-orchestration which is simply thickening of the layers without adding value (even reducing it). This juxtaposition of the banal with the tragic is frequently seen in the music of Mahler who was struck by how the external happy world with its street bands formed a contrast to the tragic events of his early home life and somehow reconciled the contradiction in his music compositions.

    Apologies for the long comment, but once again kudos on the old site and current endeavors. Despite the fact that many of your review comments break my heart repeatedly, I find that everytime I feel like protesting, I realize that you've already addressed whatever protest I was thinking of registering in a different comment and this puts my heart at rest. I'd rather read a dissenting review from a generous spirited person like yourself rather than read a consonant one from one of the many mean spirited reviewers of this great body of music.

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