AL STEWART: RUSSIANS & AMERICANS (1984)
1) Lori, Don't Go Right Now; 2) Rumours Of War; 3) The Gypsy & The Rose; 4) Accident On 3rd Street; 5) Strange Girl; 6) Russians & Americans; 7) Cafe Society; 8) One, Two, Three; 9) The Candidate.
Like all singer-songwriters with a modicum of intelligence to their overall style, Stewart could hardly hope to steer his moderate commercial success straight into the Eighties. With Year Of The Cat and Time Passages, he'd found a way to clothe his music in the trappings of «prog-lite» for the masses; but now that times had changed once again, and unless you went straight pop, you had no more chance of making it. Maybe old friend Parsons, who was still going strong commercially, could have lent a hand, but fate did not let it happen.
As it is, Russians & Americans fell through the cracks. In retrospect, I find it unjust; there are some good songs here, and, frankly speaking, the taste lapses in production are not at all horrendous compared to the next record. Expectedly, the album is heavy on generic Eighties keyboard sound — a cheap-sounding synth riff greets you from the very first second — but only 'Rumours Of War' is completely synth-based, with acoustic guitar melodies still forming the backbone of most of the songs. And, in stark contrast to 24 Carrots, where at least half of the album gave the impression of having been written and recorded to prove Al's being hip with the times, Russians & Americans gives us only one such example — the skewed Cars-style New Wave pop-rocker 'Strange Girl', which could have become a minor radio hit were it ever released as a single. For some reason, it never was, even though its only understandable pragmatic use would have been the jukebox: dumb, but catchy — the best type of bait for Eighties' teenagers.
Only one other song intentionally tries to recapture the essence of the Stewart/Parsons collaborative years: 'Cafe Society', all baroque piano flourishes and wild guitar solos and even wilder sax blowing from Phil Kenzie. Among fans, it produced the opposite effect: where the sax solo on 'Year Of The Cat' has always been counted as the song's major asset, Kenzie's screeching, stark raving mad blowing into the instrument on this track never pleased anyone. Well... it's different. I like the song; it is the album's gloomiest, most desperate, and most lyrically obscure, and the sax solos might be grating to everyone expecting another smoothly flowing piece from Kenzie, but it suits the overall mood of the song perfectly.
The title of the album may scare some people into thinking it is, overall, a concept piece on the Cold War, but in reality only the title track, a somewhat naïve plea to the opposite sides to sort out their difficulties, has something to say on the subject; even 'Rumours Of War' should be taken figuratively rather than literally (the song is about relationships rather than hydrogen bombs). If there is a concept, it is the overall darkness of the record — everything is extremely bitter, sour, minor, and morose. Not a surprise for the likes of Al, of course, but he may have overdid his usual grim schtick on here, another reason for fans to scorn it.
In essence, though, it has much more in common with the man's good old folk-rock style than 24 Carrots. 'Lori Don't Go Right Now' and 'The Gypsy & The Rose' are pretty, modestly memorable, upbeat compositions. The title of 'Accident On 3rd Street' recalls Springsteen, but the song is really closer to all those dozens of forgettable, but harmless and quite listenable rambling Dylan «sociologues» from the mid-Seventies and onwards (besides, how can one resist being slyly baited with lines like "He reminded me of one of those Vikings with the long-handled swords / The kind of guy even Joan Baez would not feel non-violent towards"?).
If the album is approached without prejudice, it has a good chance of taking its humble place next to Orange and Zero She Flies and all those other Stewart albums that just have him quietly doing his thing, without too much overproduction and too many grand ideas that sometimes hit the mark and sometimes miss it. Therefore, thumbs up.