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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Al Stewart: Love Chronicles


1) In Brooklyn; 2) Old Compton Street Blues; 3) The Ballad Of Mary Foster; 4) Life And Life Only; 5) You Should Have Lis­ten­ed To Al; 6) Love Chronicles.

No more orchestration — all the young folkies are made happy, now that the corporate wall of Mantovani strings no longer separates them from the Bare Truth. But the real good news is that, despite writing songs with strictly traditional, «rootsy» structures, Stewart always understood the power of exciting arrangements. After all, a bunch of long, repetitive songs with predictable vocal melo­dies and simple rhythmic backing satisfies no one but the staunchest fanatic. And from the very start, Stewart had an uncanny talent for attracting the best of the best to help him out.

On Love Chronicles, Al is assisted by no less than Ashley Hutchins, Simon Nicol, and Richard Thompson of Fairport Convention (all sporting various pseudonyms, most likely to avoid breach of contract), and, on the lengthy title track, by Jimmy Page himself, freshly free from Yardbirds duties but not yet having embarked on the Zep crusade. The formula works most of the time: Ste­wart starts off with a lengthy piece of narrative, sets it to an unpretentious, time-honoured chord progression, and then lets his pals roam all over it, adding plenty of (probably improvised) guitar flourishes in between his vocal lines, but never ever going off into solo territory.

From a formalistic point of view, all of this is a terrific potential recipé for boredom. But the com­bination of Stewart's intellectual charisma and the fresh talents of some of Britain's finest players generally overrides the boredom factor, at least on Side A of the album where the only song that significantly outlasts its usefulness is 'The Ballad Of Mary Foster', an eight-minute la­ment on the sad fate of a British housewife. For some strange reason, it is exactly this behemoth of a tune that Al had deemed unsuitable for any additional electric flourishes, and there are only two ways one can come to terms with that — either Al's very voice acts like an orgasmatron (not in my case, but I can understand how it could), or you can try to bring yourself to feel fairly deep­ly about Mary Foster, hard as it is to have deep feelings about such «stock characters». The song does have a certain novelty value in that it is divided into two «acts», giving us first an outside glimpse of the Fosters' family life, and then taking us inside as Stewart begins to impersonate the protagonist herself. But the novelty value wears off after a while.

Of course, 'The Ballad Of Mary Foster' is nothing compared to the famous excesses of 'Love Chronicles' themselves — eighteen minutes of musical-lyrical dialogue between Stewart and Pa­ge, as the former provides a detailed, if not necessarily sincere, account of the story of his love life from kindergarten to adulthood, and the latter attempts to project its various stages onto an improvised set of in-between lines mini-solos. The song's main claim to fame is not even the length (after 'Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands', nothing of the sort could be surprising to the ge­neral public); it is the first documented use of the F-word in a pop composition, and something tells me that, perhaps, the very idea of recording an eighteen-minute long song was intended by Al to be a ruse so that he could sneak the F-word in surreptitiously somewhere close to the end, in the hope that none of the record executives would have enough patience to hear it.

A great, promising idea, but, alas, it did not work; the executives did hear the word, and, conse­quently, the album's release was delayed by a year at least, as Al battled it out with the censors. And, of course, kudos to him for not having given in, especially since this is one rare case where the F-word really makes sense, in the context of the phrase " grew to be less like fucking and more like making love". But, even though it all makes for a great historical anecdote and a pivo­tal precedent, it hardly saves the song from a «mere curio» status. As much as we all respect Jimmy Page, he, too, eventually runs out of ideas, and somewhere around the ninth or tenth minute it all goes away except for the never-ending monolog. To be fair, it is a good monolog, very much of its time and owing much more to the hip European prose, poetry, and movie scene of the Sixties than to folk balladeering, but tolerable — but certainly not for repeated listenings.

So I would say that it is the shorter songs on Side A that make up the real meat of this record. 'In Brooklyn', a funny remembrance of one of Al's love encounters on the other side of the Atlantic, pretty much says in four minutes the exact same things that 'Love Chronicles' said in eighteen, and Thompson's and Nicol's electric guitar «weaving» is every bit as inspiring as Page's. 'Old Compton Street Blues' and 'Life And Life Only' share a slow stately beauty, particularly the latter in its cruel dissection of bourgeois family life, symbolized by a deep, desperate electric wail that renders it far superior to 'Mary Foster'. And, although slight by comparison, 'You Should Have Listened To Al' is one of the best tributes to the classic Byrds sound on this planet — especially opportune to come at the moment when the Byrds all but ceased to produce that classic sound.

The biggest difference, however, is not the length of the songs, or even the switch from orchest­ration to electric guitar backing; it is the generally more «down-to-earth» attitude, as Stewart mo­ves ever further away from the mannered medievalisms of Bedsitter Images and closer — some would say, dangerously closer — to the equally popular territory of socially-oriented Brit-pop subjects. Half of these songs, true to the album's title, tell us about Al's love life (which was, if we are to believe all this tripe, almost comparable to Gene Simmons'), and the other half is about bro­ken dreams and wasted lives of the middle class (or the lower class, for that matter, as in the prostitute tale of 'Compton Street Blues').

The stinging question is: can he do it better than, for example, Ray Davies? The obvious answer is: there is no need to compare the two if the purpose is to award first prize, because, roughly speaking, Ray sets average lyrics to colossal melodies, where­as Al clearly places more emphasis on the words — which, however, does not mean that Ray's lyrics and Al's melodies/arrangements do not matter, because they do; it's all a matter of accents, and both are quite meritorious in their own ways.

Despite the obvious shortcomings of the album — at least, from today's point of view — its gains over Bedsitter Images are as significant as its losses, which guarantees a thumbs up; but I will not argue with the commonly held opinion that, what some could see as eighteen minutes of spi­ritual revelation back in 1969, has mutated into eighteen minutes of wasted time fourty years la­ter (actually, much earlier than that), and that Al still had a certain way to go to learn the true mea­ning of the word «timeless».

1 comment:

  1. In lukewarm defense of the title song, it is comprised of several different parts tied together by the main melody. Those various parts are actually musically interesting and quite listenable, the problem is that the main theme that supposed to tie it all together is incredibly weak. Without a sturdy framework, the whole thing ends up crashing down (clever analogies need not apply).