AL STEWART: A BEACH FULL OF SHELLS (2005)
1) The Immelman Turn; 2) Mr. Lear; 3) Royal Courtship; 4) Rain Barrel; 5) Somewhere In England; 6) Katherine Of Oregon; 7) Mona Lisa Talking; 8) Class Of '58; 9) Out In The Snow; 10) My Egyptian Couch; 11) Gina In The Kings Road; 12) Beacon Street; 13) Anniversary.
Down In The Cellar gave us an Al Stewart that was cozily settling in. And for an artist that did not really make too many wild, unexpected, dangerously experimental moves even at his youthful peak, «settling in» means providing precious little food for us reviewers. Pleasant, but never overwhelming melodies, intelligent, but never unpredictable lyrical subjects and flourishes, good sense of taste so steady it's almost boring — what is there to say?
In Al's case, this means thirteen more folk-rock tunes that grow, although slowly, upon each ensuing listen, and more of his little stories, sometimes fantasies, sometimes nostalgia pieces. And, as usual, although the acoustic-based arrangements are generally similar, there is enough mood diversity to sit through the entire thing if not in an enthralled, then at least in a cutely satisfied manner. Every once in a while, Al's «modest perfection» may really get to you in all of its perfect modesty, and all of that accumulated NICENESS may make you want to throw up in disgust and reach out for your collection of hardcore classics — but in 2005, everyone who puts on a new Al Stewart album is either supposed to know what to expect, or is completely crazy and throws up on a regular basis all the same.
For the record, this particular issue of «Where In The World Is [W]Al[do] Stewart?» covers such topics as limerick father Edward Lear; David Lean's Brief Encounter; American barnstorm fliers of the 1920s; one of the wives of Henry VIII subtly transplanted into a personal fantasy; and far more obscure subjects that I am unable to decipher at all (what the hell is 'Rain Barrel' about, and who the hell is Mr. Williams? Perhaps Al should consider having his albums come packaged in newspaper clippings, à la Thick As A Brick?).
Also for the record, rumors state that the entire thing was originally thought to be centered around a thirteen-minute version of 'Class Of '58', with Al's inevitable nostalgic impulse targeted at gray-haired rock'n'roll grandaddies of his generation. The full version, it is said, has seen single release, but it is hard to see why this fun, but insignificant retro-rockabilly stomp should have been any longer than four, which it is here.
And for the final record, my personal favourite song is easily definable here as 'Mona Lisa Talking' — not because Al pretends to have found a simple, but most probably wrong decipherment of the most famous smile in history, but because he has actually found a gorgeous musical/vocal hook to go along with the decipherment: the "go home, pretty baby..." is one of those subtle heart-tugs that I so like to collect in relatively obscure locations and strongly recommend to all the other heart-tug connoisseurs out there.
Oh, and thumbs up, of course. These particular shells on the beach are hardly worth a million, but all are fairly solid, and it's not that easy these days to fall upon a solitary beach with thirteen solid shells. This one's definitely not for the tourists. Odd coincidence of the day: Why does the Middle Eastern-ish strings riff that introduces 'Rain Barrel' sound so much like the opening riff of ABBA's disco hit 'Voulez-Vous'? Either the two must have a common source, or Al Stewart has a really sick subconscious.
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