CAMEL: DUST AND DREAMS (1991)
1) Dust Bowl; 2) Go West; 3) Dusted Out; 4) Mother Road; 5) Needles; 6) Rose Of Sharon; 7) Milk 'n' Honey; 8) End Of The Line; 9) Storm Clouds; 10) Cotton Camp; 11) Broken Banks; 12) Sheet Rain; 13) Whispers; 14) Little Rivers And Little Rose; 15) Hopeless Anger; 16) Whispers In The Rain.
Isn't it a bit too predictable that, upon moving to California in the late Eighties, Latimer got the idea to make his new album into a conceptual suite based on The Grapes Of Wrath? Maybe he, too, liked to imagine himself as an outcast, broken down by the capitalist system (as personified by Decca Records) and further battered by unfavorable circumstances? Oh well, at any rate he must have been well off enough so as not to resort to baling cotton or picking peaches — instead, inspired by his new beginnings and supported by his wife, Susan Hoover (who wrote a large part of the lyrics), he set up his own minor label (Camel Productions), got the Stationary Traveller band back together, and besieged his muse for comfort.
Theoretically, a Camel-style musical / rock opera / oratorio / whatever, based on The Grapes Of Wrath, could have been a humble masterpiece — had it been recorded an era ago. The problem with Dust And Dreams, though, is that in terms of overall sound it is exactly like Stationary Traveller. The two main ingredients are still Scherpenzeel's «adult-approved» synthesizers and Latimer's clean, tasteful, and all-too-polite electric guitar; in between the two, they keep on generating the exact same soft-pretty-melancholic mood on every single track, and the result is yet another record whose appeal will largely be restricted to fans of post-Waters era Pink Floyd and very late Alan Parsons Project.
It might seem like a very good idea that most of the tracks are instrumental: the first two thirds of the album shift between vocal and instrumental compositions, and the final third, beginning with ʽStorm Cloudsʼ, is a completely instrumental suite, with several movements illustrating different moments from Tom Joad's timeline. After all, Camel's best albums had always been associated with instrumental music, and the vocals were one of the major reasons why Stationary Traveller had that safe-and-bland adult contemporary look. Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple. While the final suite does sound unmistkably «Camelish», the instrumentation is too monotonous, and the melodic themes are too unimaginative, for it to even begin to match the peaks of Snow Goose or even Nude.
The most bold and «progressive» part of the suite is ʽHopeless Angerʼ, which does try to be louder, more dynamic and, indeed, angry than the rest of the compositions — and even goes as far as to incorporate some non-standard time signatures and multiple theme changes. But everything is just way too predictable — the big drum sound, the synth textures, the melodic guitar solos that always stop right on the brink of becoming exciting. There's no true memorability to these themes, and there's almost no personality; in fact, I think I'd easily pick contemporary Rush product over this, because at least Rush have always had the advantage of technically more impressive musicianship (well, Latimer might probably hold his own against Alex Lifeson, but the rhythm section on Dust And Dreams is not even worth talking about).
As for the vocal songs, well... I guess the only true low point is ʽRose Of Sharonʼ, which sounds like a cross between an ABBA ballad (courtesy of guest vocalist Mae McKenna, who is sometimes compared with Enya but here sometimes dips into Frida's style) and a Disney musical number, but I am not really impressed with stuff like ʽMother Roadʼ (a MOR rocker with the usual boring pop metal rhythm guitars) or even with potentially poignant lyrical tracks like ʽGo Westʼ that seem to be trying way too hard to woo the listener with their «deep» sentimentality. Too clean, too polished, too Spiritual for a band that did not even have the budget to hire a proper orchestra, and had to model all of its Spirituality on awful plastic keyboards. (Okay, so one cannot really blame them for lack of budget — but, I dunno, one single classically trained cellist could have made more of a contribution than Tom Scherpenzeel and his array of electronics).
Overall, this is not a disaster — there's enough intelligent guitar playing here, and enough of reasonable musical ideas to at least let you know that this is no contract obligation we're talking about. But in terms of general sound, this record was frickin' dated before its time: production values are totally hickey for the likes of 1991 — more like 1987, when even Bruce Springsteen succumbed to such cheesiness on Tunnel Of Love. If Stationary Traveller was an odd conceptual idea degraded to the level of total embarrassment, then Dust And Dreams is an improvement, as it's a fine conceptual idea degarded to the level of passable mediocrity. But that, unfortunately, is still not much of a recommendation.