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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Cat Stevens: Matthew & Son

CAT STEVENS: MATTHEW & SON (1967)

1) Matthew & Son; 2) I Love My Dog; 3) Here Comes My Baby; 4) Bring Another Bottle Baby; 5) Portobello Road; 6) I've Found A Love; 7) I See A Road; 8) Baby Get Your Head Screwed On; 9) Granny; 10) When I Speak To The Flowers; 11) The Tramp; 12) Come On And Dance; 13) Hummingbird; 14) Lady; 15*) School Is Out; 16*) I'm Gonna Get Me A Gun.

Ah, to be 18 in the year of 1967. People like to be condescending to Cat Stevens' debut — inclu­ding Cat Stevens himself, who had very quickly turned against the production style imposed upon him by producer Mike Hurst on those early records, and has always dismissed them as too light­weight, immature, and sugary-sweet. But there is a youthful charm here that is not to be found on his classic recordings, and as far as my ears are concerned, the sound of Matthew & Son is «da­ted» in a very positive way — the baroque-pop flourishes and the sunshine orchestration fully agree with the sweetness of Stevens' young voice and his charismatic persona.

It is clear, right from the start, that here is a man strictly following his own path. The influences are obvious — pop-rock of The Beatles, folksy singer-songwriter stuff of Simon & Garfunkel, flowery meditativeness of Donovan, etc. — but the experiences behind the songs are the ex­clu­sive property of Mr. Georgiou, as are the melodic structures (and if Mr. Georgiou is copying somebody else on the melodic structures, he is being way sophisticated on this: thus, he later admitted that ʽI Love My Dogʼ borrows the main melodic theme from Yusef Lateef's ʽThe Plum Blossomʼ, leading one to wonder just how many other relatively little-known jazz records the man may have plundered for inspiration). Even as an 18-year old amateur, he refuses to openly subscribe to any particular school of musical thought — in terms of atmosphere, I would pro­bably place this album closest to contemporary Donovan, yet its lyrical themes very rarely con­centrate on fantasy / psychedelia, having more in common with the «everyday obser­vations of the little man» approach of Ray Davies. Sort of an «Alice In Routineland» thing here.

The little catch about Stevens is that his voice actually sounds timeless rather than young. In a few years, he would develop a bit of a rasp, deepening the effect from his singing; here, his voice is fresh and clean, but it already has a certain sage-like quality to it — largely free from deliberate emotional winding-up and displaying calm and serenity regardless of the circumstances. Happy Cat Stevens, sad Cat Stevens, love-ridden Cat Stevens, angry Cat Stevens all sound very much alike (in this, his closest musical ally may be Al Stewart, who, perhaps not so coincidentally, would also release his debut album the same year and have it arranged very much in the same style; although with Al, the «sage» image works even better because he was far more lyrically sophisticated than Stevens from the very beginning). The good news is that this results not in monotonousness, but in a certain «lesson of serenity» that this guy teaches us from the very start of his career — and that I, personally, would value over a thousand religious sermons. (Warning: this page is going to be highly politically incorrect towards the spiritual path of evolution chosen by Mr. Georgiou, though I will try to always concentrate on the Cat Stevens aspect of his perso­nality, regardless of any extra cultural baggage).

The very first song — the title track — is about the fuss and the madness of ordinary life, see­mingly complaining about the workers at Matthew & Son and how "they've been working all day, all day, all day!", but... complaining? More like curiously contemplating: Stevens sings that line as if in a state of quiet Taoist marvel at the (pointless) achievements of all those poor souls, and the song's arrangement, with the harpsichords and the brass section and all the strings, adds a good dose of nonchalant British good humor as well (for the record, the song features Nicky Hopkins on keyboards and John Paul Jones on bass — the same efficient combo that would later lend a hand to the Stones' ʽShe's A Rainbowʼ, which, not surprisingly, is stylistically similar to this tune). There might be sadness, or even condemnation, somewhere here in between the lines, but this is more like a befuddled alien observer reaction, and therein lies the charm of this record: even as an inexperienced 18-year old, Cat Stevens has already managed to construct himself an artistic personality, hovering over the real world around him with more credibility (and less empty flash) than Ziggy Stardust.

He is not completely out of this world, though: more like a loner who is simply way too awesome for this world. On ʽHere Comes My Babyʼ, a song that ended up taken to the charts by The Tre­meloes rather than himself, he is singing about lost love to one of the most upbeat and cheerful melodies on the album — "never could be mine, no matter how I try" shows that he is sorry about what happened, but he is certainly not going to kill himself over such a bit of bad luck as this. In fact, he loves his dog as much as he loves you — "you may fade, my dog will always come through", he sings on the song that he took to the charts himself, though not very high; still, for such a quiet and unassuming song to hit No. 28 in late 1966 was quite an achievement. He never gets out of character when he is trying to woo a lady, either: ʽBaby Get Your Head Screwed Onʼ, a catchy pop march with the hardest-hitting rhythm track on the album, keeps its cool at all times, with one of the least sexual "baby you'll be out of your mind" refrains you'll ever hear. Apparent­ly, Cat Stevens does not need to resort to Mick Jagger's arsenal when romancing his next partner (although that does not stop him from throwing around a few insinuations).

Unlike contemporary or modern day critics, I think that — particularly given Cat's age and lack of experience — there are no bad songs on the album: each composition shows some originality and inspiration, even if some are more naïve than others (ʽThe Trampʼ is a little misguided, a crude way to raise some pity for its title character because at this point, Stevens cannot properly master the tearful / tear-inducing approach; still a pleasant acoustic ditty, though). Some criticism has been levelled at the album's amateurishly psychedelic elements, but there is no psychedelia as such here — do not be confused by such titles as ʽWhen I Speak To The Flowersʼ, because it is really a dynamic R&B song that is more influenced by Otis Redding than any psychedelia, and the only thing he wants to get from the flowers is an answer on whether he should "just leave you behind", anyway. He is not a flower child — a troubadour, perhaps, as evidenced on the final serenade of the album (ʽLadyʼ, with the most courteous and tender delivery of 'em all), but most of all, just an innocent bystander with his own, ever so slightly detached, take on life.

There really was no other time than 1967 to produce such a record, an age when kids could lay their own claims to wisdom and experience and get away with it in spite of all the arrogance (then again, I'm always ready to defend even such albums as From Genesis To Revelation), so I am definitely insisting for a much more solid thumbs up here than the more typical reaction of «this is cute stuff, but he'd do so much better in the future». You do have to push your inner child but­ton to properly enjoy Matthew & Son, but if you have one, it is easy, and if you don't have one, you're much better off listening to Matthew's Passion anyway (instead of all this pop rubbish).

And, for the record, do not forget that the proper edition of the album is the one that tacks the ʽI'm Gonna Get Me A Gunʼ single at the end as a bonus track — it is one of his catchiest and funniest tracks of the era, and in case you think this might be Ted Nugent territory or something, its kiddie pop melody makes absolutely certain that the singer is talking about a plastic toy at best. It's all pretend and make-believe, see. If Donovan was the Lewis Carroll of pop music, then Cat Stevens may have been its Alan Alexander Milne — for one year, at least.

8 comments:

  1. Seeing this made my day. Very interested in your reviews for Mr. Stephen Georgiou. I've developed an appreciation for his stuff, although the only album I thoroughly like is Tea for the Tillerman. A lot of great singles in the early 70s though.

    "in a few years, he would develop a bit of a rasp, deepening the effect from his singing." I think it was in late '68 he contracted mononucleosis and was basically housebound for about 18 months. This roughed up his voice. Also, he got more spiritually aware which made him dig deeper and pull out the stops when needed.

    "hovering over the real world around him" I always got the feeling that on this record he had one foot in the Swinging London scene and one in his own private world. Songs like "Better Get Another Bottle baby" kind of flash a connection with the party crowd but then he steps out on some of the others.

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  2. A great review of a hugely underrated album.

    I think that this and Tea For The Tillerman are the twin highlights of his career, with Mona Bone Jakon a not wholly satisfactory work of transition. He became tedious thereafter though.

    Yes and I'm Gonna Get Me A Gun is hilarious!

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  3. Ah, yes, Yusuf, Salman Rushdie's favorite literary critic. One of the world's finest musical misanthropes, masquerading - as many do - as "a sensitive, tormented soul desperately searching for a spiritual epiphany." He once confessed that he accepted the Koran without first meeting a single Muslim, which is precisely the point. Vile, vile man.

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    1. Why don't you just have the balls to come out and say you hate Muslims?

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    2. Because I don't. But I do hate misanthropes who hide under the protective name of religion. Bob Dylan went through a similar phase, then somewhat recovered his humanity. Not so much our dear Yusuf.

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    3. Not sure I buy that. Stevens/Islam has devoted most of his life to children's education and charity work. Incidentally what have you done, or Dylan for that matter? As far as I'm aware he made a single nasty comment about Rushdie which he later regretted. It's for that reason you call him vile and double down on it. Nope. I still think you're prejudiced against Muslims.

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  4. I grew up listening to this stuff, imagine all my friends listening to Metallica or Michael Jackson while I was banging my head to "Granny"! Some of those friends even took interest in good old Cat because these songs are so damn catchy (although not as introspective as his later stuff). People say it sounded dated even back then but it's not unlike some film music from that era - stuff like Raymond Lefèvre or even Sergio Leone ("The Tramp" in particular).

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  5. Oops... I obviously meant Ennio Morricone, not Sergio Leone.

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