AL STEWART: SEEMED LIKE A GOOD IDEA AT THE TIME (1996)
1) Where Are They Now; 2) Fields Of France; 3) Soho (Needless To Say); 4) In Red Square; 5) A Sense Of Déjà Vu; 6) How Does It Happen; 7) Coolest Winter In Memory; 8) Candy Came Back; 9) Jackdaw; 10) The Bear Farmers Of Birnam; 11) In The Dark; 12) Blow Your Mansion Down; 13) Willie The King; 14) Merry Monks; 15) Ghostly Horses Of The Plain; 16) Mixed Blessing.
This collection of outtakes and rarities was only available for a limited period through a fan club distribution in the mid-1990s, and, for the most part, has been made obsolete since then by the recent CD re-releases of Al's catalog, through dismemberment and dispersal of most tracks as bonuses for the corresponding chronological periods.
Nevertheless, it still exists — in the form of a used item on Ebay, a low-quality download on the local torrent site, or a discography memento graced with a slightly corny photo. And it has its use as a one-time sixty-minute listen, too, being fully on the level. Not every artist can boast an outtake collection that is almost as entertaining as an original, semi-coherent LP; Al, in terms of quality if not recognition, joins the league of Dylan and Nick Drake.
The time period covered spans pretty much all of Stewart's pre-1996 career, the earliest track being 'Jackdaw' from the late Sixties, the latest — several tracks from the Between The Wars sessions; and most are just as melodic and moving as the typically best stuff from the guy, sometimes even more. 'Jackdaw' gives us the early innocent Stewart with pastoral flutes and starry eyes, spoiled somewhat by cooky backing vocals; but already the tracks dating back to the Parsons years are magnificently serious folk-rock, particularly 'A Sense Of Déjà Vu', worthy of the stateliness of a George Harrison classic, and 'Willie The King', a bleak, depressing cross between a barroom blues and a prog-rock epic.
Later numbers are a 'Mixed Blessing' indeed — some, like this particular song, are hopelessly overwhelmed by crap-Eighties production, but generally they match the standards of the corresponding LPs: 'In Red Square', for instance, would have made a decent addition to Russians & Americans, but was, perhaps, excised for way too many references to Russian history targeted at audiences who might not have too pleasant a time refreshing their memories on Khrushchev. The New Wave trimmings of 'Candy Came Back' will please fans of 24 Carrots; the synth-pop leanings of 'How Does It Happen' will probably please no one, though — lines like "An original thought can be such a rush, why do they feed you on a diet of man-made mush?" do not sound all that convincing when they are set to man-made mush. Then the mood will be set right with the light humor of 'The Bear Farmers Of Birnam' ("...oftentimes the girls reject you — a bear won't treat you so; you're satisfied to know, when he chews you up, he still respects you"), the cheery medievalism of 'Merry Monks', and what may be the grandest and gorgeous-est entry of 'em all, 'In The Dark', from not-exactly-sure-when with a beautiful piano melody played by not-exactly-sure-whom.
All in all, a great collection — thumbs up, and way too bad if some of the best tracks happen to get lost in the process of dismemberment — but the tormenting question is: who the hell thought it was a good idea to start things off with two tracks from Last Days Of The Century? Fanclub releases seem to have their own unexplicated bits of weirdness.