AL STEWART: DOWN IN THE CELLAR (2000)
1) Waiting For Margaux; 2) Tasting History; 3) Down In The Cellars; 4) Turning It Into Water; 5) Soho; 6) The Night That The Band Got The Wine; 7) Millie Brown; 8) Stained Moon; 9) Franklin's Table; 10) House Of Clocks; 11) Sergio; 12) Toutes Les Etoiles; 13) The Shiraz Shuffle.
It is hard to imagine anybody other than al Stewart, in the whole wide world, recording an entire album of songs about wine — and, more or less, getting away with it. That Al is a seasoned connaisseur, is no sin of his. That he is capable of writing a nice, friendly tune about taking a sip, there is hardly any doubt. But surely a whole concept album drawing on his love for wine would be overkill? Boring at best, kitschy novelty at worst?
Well... it is not the best Al Stewart album ever, that one is for sure. Some songs work well and some not quite so. He did overestimate the power of inspiration evaporating from that cellar; and, what's worse, there is a quaint, uncomfortable aroma of snobbery. There is no reason to doubt the man's noble and innocent intentions (heck, he just loves all sorts of wine, what's wrong with that? Not everyone is supposed to inherit the tastes of John Lee Hooker) — but somehow I, for one, feel it easier to fall under Al's enchantment when he is reminding me of Josephine Baker and Charles Lindbergh rather than extolling the virtues of Margaux and Shiraz.
So, as a sprawling, many-faced ode to wine, Down In The Cellar is ambiguous, not only because a rock LP praising wine is suspicious per se, but also because the songs themselves are not all that reminiscent of alcohol-related environment, if you know what I mean. A note from a listener I once fell upon read something like, "I hate wine, but I liked this record" — meaning that Al essentially failed in his task. If this were a good record about wine, it would have been hated by all strong wine-haters — or it would have converted the weak ones. Instead, this is just a good record. Forget about the wine.
Since there are no production excesses (everything is kept in strict accordance with Al's no-extra-ornaments folk-rock formula: acoustic essence, minimalistic rhythm section, occasional electric guitar, occasional pianos, occasional chamber strings arrangement), and since there are no excuses for genre-hopping and experimentation such as provided by the topical matters of Between The Wars, the melodies do not require description; as usual, they are, uh, melodic — simple, moving, and memorable. Humble, too: only 'The Night That The Band Got The Wine', with its lengthy epic title, six-minute running length, and increased levels of loudness, pretends to epic status, but is actually underpinned by its pretense; I'd rather look for the meaning of life in the rococo strings of 'Franklin's Table' (apparently, Ben was a big fan of the spirits, too), the dense medieval drone of 'Soho', and the echo-laden lonesome howling-wolf electric solos of 'Stained Moon'. Beautiful tunes, these.
Unfortunately, Down In The Cellar suffered doubly because of lack of promotion (the Miramar label that was supposed to take care of the album in the States went bankrupt before it managed to release it), and because of being tagged as some sort of «special interest» item. Not to worry: it is a perfectly normal, regular Al Stewart album reflecting his normal, regular skills at writing, singing, and playing. And who really gives a damn about the wine? Thumbs up.