AL STEWART: ZERO SHE FLIES (1970)
1) My Enemies Have Sweet Voices; 2) A Small Fruit Song; 3) Gethsemane, Again; 4) Burbling; 5) Electric Los Angeles Sunset; 6) Manuscript; 7) Black Hill; 8) Anna; 9) Room Of Roots; 10) Zero She Flies.
Not as much star presence this time around; the biggest names are arguably Louis Cennamo on bass (of Renaissance, Illusion, and Armageddon fame, if the word «fame» is applicable to these fairy tale bands at all), and Gerry Conway on drums (Fotheringay, Cat Stevens, Steeleye Span... get the picture?). But this is not a big problem, since Stewart has temporarily settled upon a formula that does not necessarily require such presence.
Cutting down on the excesses of Love Chronicles, he seems, for now, content to stick to two recipés: (a) instrumental or near-instrumental folk ditties with huge emphasis on his own acoustic playing; (b) short- or medium-sized folk-pop songs with decent, but never overwhelming, levels of catchiness and intelligence. In other words, nothing new, but the overall feeling of balance and self-assuredness is higher on Zero than both on Bedsitter Images, with its lack of a perfect sense of direction and contamination by outsider ideas (not that I ever complained), and on Chronicles, with its overloaded aura of pretense.
First, the instrumentals are excellent. If you are a fan of Led Zeppelin's 'Black Mountain Side' and similar things, Zero She Flies will be a solid source of pleasure, a tight package of beauty for all lovers of tricky acoustic soundscapes. I am not entirely sure of who is playing what — most of these compositions have at least two guitars weaving it out — but, obviously, it does not really matter as long as the melody takes you to the appropriate enchanted forest.
Second, the songs, no longer subjugated to Al's sudden fondness for Jean-Jacques Rousseau-style sexual confession, are no slouches either. He returns to the «anything goes» ideology of Bedsitter Images: we have meaningless, but cool-sounding neo-hip punboxes with lyrics by outsiders ('My Enemies Have Sweet Voices'), not too cheap and not too expensive swipes at organized religion ('Gethsemane, Again'), socially conscious anthems ('Electric Los Angeles Sunset', which must have served as an inspiration to the Stones' 'Heartbreaker' three years later), bizarre romance in which compliments are hard to distinguish from insults (title track), and solemn reminiscences of days long gone by in which the heroes of both World War II and World War I are named explicitly ('Manuscript'). The latter track, in particular, must have struck such a strong chord in Al's heart that he's been playing the local history buff ever since. But this is where it started.
None of this is too complex, and none of it sacrifices catchiness in the chorus for the sake of putting on an elitist air. 'My Enemies Have Sweet Voices' does feature some pretty elaborate puns (as distasteful as the practice is considered these days, wordplay like "I was jumping to conclusions, and one of them jumped back" is impressive and — who knows? — perhaps not even devoid of a certain sense), but its main attraction lies in the jagged staccato playing and its dialog with the woozly-bamboozly harmonica. 'Los Angeles Sunset' is a little silly and lazy (surely the distinguished scholar could have come up with a better chorus line than 'Hmmm, mmmm, hmmm, Electric Los Angeles sunset...'?), but it sounds unnaturally rough and stern in the context of the album. And the title track is a darn good merger of roots-rock with psychedelia, inspiring without being overbearing.
All of this means another thumbs up, no matter how obvious it may be that here is an artist who has not yet firmly settled into his saddle of choice. The brain department politely reminds that all of the things you hear on this record had already been done better by other individuals of the late Sixties' generation; but why should we take it out on poor Al Stewart, whose only fault lies in getting there a tad later than the rest of the crew? "My enemies have sweet voices", he sings about this nuisance, "their tones are soft and kind — when I hear, my heart rejoices, I do not seem to mind". Neither do I, while hearing Zero She Flies.