AL STEWART: BETWEEN THE WARS (1995)
1) Night Train To Munich; 2) The Age Of Rhythm; 3) Sampan; 4) Lindy Comes To Town; 5) Three Mules; 6) A League Of Notions; 7) Life Between The Wars; 8) Betty Boop’s Birthday; 9) Marion The Chatelaine; 10) Joe The Georgian; 11) Always The Cause; 12) Laughing Into 1939; 13) The Black Danube.
Another minor gem, alas, too limited in ambition and too humble in execution to become anything higher than a cult classic (and, so far, it has not become even that). This time, in collaboration with guitarist Laurence Juber, and, apparently, feeling more free than a bird, Al fully gives in to his historical passion — dedicating an entire album to songs dealing with one and one only historical period, arguably his favourite one: remember “...I was born too late to see Josephine Baker dancing in a Paris cabaret"? Well, at least he was born not too late to be enthralled by the 1920s and the 1930s, enough to offer such a cute little recreation of those happy/awful times.
The recreation is not actually musical: apart from the first two fast-paced songs, Al does not offer a regular «retro» exercise, which might have been judged as too posh and fanciful, and heard as too fake and devoid of credibility (think Christina Aguilera). Most of the songs are written the way he usually writes them — not terribly inventive folk-pop melodies — but the spirit is clearly invigorated by the subject, which he explores from all sides, with humor, tragedy, melancholy, and excitement permeating all the motives.
The track names mostly speak for themselves — unless you come from a long line of village idiots, you will be able to understand at least fifty or more percent of Al’s sources from the titles, although there may be one or two you will have trouble with even if you’re a history buff yourself, since Mr. Stewart touches upon political, social, and cultural issues of the two decades, sticking references to just about everything that existed back in the day, from Dorothy Parker to Hedy Lamarr to Zinoviev and Kamenev.
To waste space on description of the individual songs would be downplaying the point. All are sparsely produced, completely acoustic with an occasional accordeon, piano, or quiet orchestral arrangement thrown in. Each delivers a hummable chorus; some, in addition to that, offer the delight of a flapper’s dance (‘The Age Of Rhythm’, ‘When Lindy Comes To Town’), while others prefer to delve the mines of doom and gloom (‘Laughing Into 1939’). Lyrically, some are hilarious (all the spy references in ‘Night Train To Munich’), some knowledgeably sarcastic (‘League Of Notions’), a few downright silly (‘Joe The Georgian’, about how Stalin’s victims are impatiently waiting for him to join them in Hell). And some represent implicit edutainment — ‘Betty Boop’s Birthday’ may make one want to check out those old cartoons.
But the point is, of course, to weave a specific projection of the epoch out of these bits and pieces, and, from that point of view, the album is a success. Pedantically minded ones may complain about Stewart’s vision being too shallow and unprofessional, but he is no historian, after all, and Between The Wars is not a PhD thesis, merely a loving tribute from a talented, intelligent aficionado. If it does not charm you at least a little, you’re either hopelessly hung up, or a disgruntled victim of Are You Smarter Than A Third Grader. And what better excuse is needed to rewatch that old Carol Reed classic? Thumbs up, of course.