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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Al Stewart: Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time


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.

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