Wednesday, 30 November 2016

"Original Album Series" by AL STEWART (January 2014 Parlophone/Warners 5CD Mini Box Set of Remasters) - A Review by Mark Barry...

"...A Small Fruit Song..."

As a clearly befuddled and out-of-his-depths Emperor Joseph II (played by Jeffrey Jones) tries to reply to Mozart in Milos Forman's "Amadeus" when asked if he liked Wolfgang's new symphony – the Emperor quickly babbles - "...There's too many notes! Yes that's it! Too many notes!" Mozart tries in vein to advise the clearly ignorant European deity that his masterful musical composition has absolute no superfluous notes of any kind (you twat) – but Mozart's pleas for an enlightened audience fall on deaf ears and some seriously caked-on rouge.

Al Stewart is the same. His high-pitched almost effeminate voice and particularly wordy songs (like a college professor who can't stop himself giving you a history lesson - too many syllables Al) has the same effect. He's a Bovril artist - not everyone likes the Glaswegian Folky but if you do you're thinking our Alistair may very well be a misunderstood genius and then some. But what about the icky Bovril you say. I for one am down with both opinions when it comes to Al Stewart (he's good and bad). I find the first two LPs period-fey and at times unbearably hard to take - but the gorgeous Nick Drake vibe of "Zero She Flies" from 1970 has always seemed like a forgotten gem to me - and the last two LPs on RCA are simply quality work from a classy and accomplished songwriter. Here are the Small Fruit Songs...

UK released January 2014 - "Original Album Series" by AL STEWART on Parlophone/Warners 2564636168 (Barcode 825646361687) is a 5CD Mini Box Set of Remasters (four are) that plays out as follows:

Disc 1 "Bedsitter Images" (41:40 minutes):
1. Bedsitter Images
2. Swiss Cottage Manoeuvres
3. The Carmichaels
4. Scandinavian Girl
5. Pretty Golden Hair
6. Denise At 16
7. Samuel, Oh How You've Changed! [Side 2]
8. Cleave To Me
9. A Long Way Down From Stephanie
10. Ivich
11. Beleeka Doodle Day
Tracks 1 to 11 are his debut LP "Bedsitter Images" (cover has the LP title as "Bed Sitter Images" but the label and song is "Bedsitter Images") - released October 1967 in the UK on CBS Records BPG 63087 (Mono) and CBS Records S BPG 63087 (Stereo) - the STEREO version is used for this CD Remaster which was done in 2007. His debut was also reissued in June 1970 in the UK on CBS Records S 64023 with different artwork under the title "The First Album" - the card sleeve here uses the original 1967 artwork (there was no US issue).

Disc 2 "Love Chronicles" (43:09 minutes):
1. In Brooklyn
2. Old Compton Street Blues
3. The Ballad Of Mary Foster
4. Life And Life Only
5. You Should Have Listened To Al [Side 2]
6. Love Chronicles
Tracks 1 to 6 are his second studio album "Love Chronicles" - released January 1969 in the UK on CBS Records S 63460 (Stereo) and June 1970 in the USA on Epic BN 26564. The original British LP was a gatefold sleeve with a profile photo of Al in a fur coat on the front sleeve with a photo of him and his girlfriend wrapped in blanket sat on grass on the rear. The US LP in 1970 on Epic Records dropped the gatefold to a single-sleeve and reversed the cover art (him and the girl on the front and not on the rear). The card sleeve here uses the UK artwork and the 2007 CD Remaster is used.

Disc 3 "Zero She Flies" (37:16 minutes):
1. My Enemies Have Sweet Voices
2. A Small Fruit Song
3. Gethsemane, Again
4. Burbling
5. Electric Los Angeles Sunset
6. Manuscript [Side 2]
7. Black Hill
8. Anna
9. Room Of Boots
10. Zero She Flies
Tracks 1 to 10 are his third studio album "Zero She Flies" - released March 1970 in the UK on CBS Records S 63848 (Stereo) - No US Issue. 2007 CD Remaster used.

Disc 4 "Year Of The Cat" (39:14 minutes):
1. Lord Grenville
2. On The Border
3. Midas Shadow
4. Sand In Your Shoes
5. If It Doesn't Come Naturally, Leave It
6. Flying Sorcery [Side 2]
7. Broadway Hotel
8. One Stage Before
9. Year Of The Cat
Tracks 1 to 9 are his seventh studio album "Year Of The Cat" - released October 1976 in the UK on RCA Records RS 1082 and in the USA on Janus Records JXS 7022. Peaked at No. 38 in the UK and No. 5 in the USA.

Disc 5 "Time Passages" (44:38 minutes):
1. Time Passages
2. Valentina Way
3. Life In dark Water
4. A Man For All Seasons
5. Almost Lucy [Side 2]
6. Palace Of Versailles
7. Timeless Skies
8. Song On The Radio
9. End Of The Day
Tracks 1 to 9 are his eight studio album "Time Passages" - released September 1978 in the UK on RCA PL 25173 and in the USA on Arista AB-4190 - peaked at No. 39 in the UK and No. 10 in the USA.

By now most know the gig with these 'Original Album Series' Mini Box Sets - five CD albums in single card sleeves with front and rear cover repro artwork that looks nice but is impossible to read. There's no booklet and the only real info is the track lists on the CD labels. The original gatefold sleeves of "Love Chronicles", "Zero She Flies", "Year Of The Cat" and the inner sleeve of "Time Passages" are all AWOL. The repro sleeves are best described as adequate at best and you do need to be careful of the easily crushed flimsy card slipcase that scuffs easily too.

But there's good news where it matters - on the Audio front. Other reviewers have noted that the first three albums presented here - his 1967 debut "Bedsitter Images" - its follow-up "Love Chronicles" from 1969 - and the wonderful 1970 effort "Zero She Flies" are all 2007 Remasters - so the Audio is toppermost of the poppermost. His huge 1976 chart breakthrough LP "Year Of The Cat" is a 2001 Remaster - but no-one seems to know when 1978's equally melodious "Time Passages" was mastered (or remastered for that matter). As all three of the 2007 versions are deleted and costing a pretty penny ever since and the other two not easy to nail down either - this 5CD Mini Box Set with repro art card sleeves for all 5 LPs represents good value for money and a reasonable way to explore a singer well worth checking out.

The first album is a victim of dates – despite great lyrics about 'panelled patterns on the door' the title track for "Bedsitter Images" is given strings and heavy-handed drums to make it bop – the results are ham-fisted. The same applies to "Pretty Golden Hair" – a forced happy-wappy vibe trying to make the song CBS chart material - while a clavinet gives "A Long Way Down From Stephanie" a sort of Simon & Garfunkel feel but not in a good way. His second studio outing pulls back on the musical clutter but goes nuts with the words. "The Ballad Of Mary Foster" is 8:02 and almost all of Side 2 is taken up with the 18:04 minutes of "Love Chronicles" - but at least that feyness that blighted the first LP is gone. Christine gets kissed at ten - joints come in in his late teens - and "Love Chronicles" does well to retain your interest for such a time. But my fave on here is the simple, sad and 'don't get things for nothing' weariness of  "Old Compton Street Blues" where an impressionistic girl smiles - sadly slipping off her dress for the sailor or the clerk in one of London's most notorious haunts. The "Love Chronicles" LP was a huge leap forward but I think his next was even better.

"...I was playing brag in Bedlam and the doctor would not deal..." he sings on the brilliant "My Enemies Have Sweet Voices" - a funky little opener for the fab "Zero She Flies" LP from 1970. For the beginning of the decade Al Stewart seemed to have discovered his inner Funky South Kensington Donovan as the Harmonica and Georgie Fame organ Funk-Folk their way throughout the astute lyrics of "My Enemies Have Sweet Voices". As the bent-notes of a high-string acoustic chug along to an Old Grey Whistle Test Theme harmonica - Stewart sings "...I was blindside to the gutter...and Merlin happened by...asking me why do you lie down there bleeding...I answered him magician as a matter of fact...I was jumping to conclusions and one of them jumped back..." The audio on opener and the lovely follow on "A Small Fruit Song" are utterly stunning - clean and full - as the strings rattle around your speakers. In fact CBS used "A Small Fruit Song" as one of the tracks on the famous 1970 2LP label sampler "Fill Your Head With Rock" - it's acoustic simplicity as pretty as any song they had over on Nick Drake's and Cat Stevens' Island Records. An affectionate rumination on the soppiness and humanity of Jesus ("Gethsemane, Again") is followed by a gorgeous acoustic instrumental called "Burbling" which sounds like its playful-water title. "...Waiting for the ambulance and the cops to come..." come the world-weary lyrics to "Electric Los Angeles Sunset" chronicling the end of the hippy-dream as Cadillacs move snakelike through the haze of smoke from once hip cafes.

His storytelling brilliance can often floor you - take the words to the Eleanor Rigby elegant "Manuscript" as he recalls an old lady remembering - "...And my grandmother sits on the beach in the days before the war...a young girl writing her diary...while time seems to pause...watching the waves as they come one by one to die on the shore...kissing the feet of England..." More acoustic dexterity comes in the shape of "Black Hill" which quickly turns into a mandolin ballad with a few short lines and then it's gone. Beautiful and sad are words to describe "Anna" - a lady listening for the echo of his foot on the stair - the sound of a man who only took flesh from her bones and left little else. It ends on a duo of accomplished acoustic songs - like Leo Kottke with words - "Room Of Boots" and "Zero She Flies" - small wonder the album made No. 40 on the UK LP charts (he wouldn't taste chart success until 1976).

We then skip three albums on CBS ("Orange" in 1972, "Past, Present & Future" in 1973 and "Modern Times" in 1975) to when he signed to RCA Victor and saw his biggest chart success and the album/song he's most remembered for - 1976's "Year Of The Cat". It opens with the slow but majestic "Lord Grenville" with its 'voices on the wind' - followed by the equally sweeping piano-frantic "On The Border" with those acoustic-guitar flourishes sounding so sweet. The electric keyboard shimmer of "Midas Shadow" sounds sweet too as does the almost seaside vibe to "Sand In Your Shoes" where Al sings goodbye to his lady of the island. Side 1 ends with "It Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It" where some lady bends his back and many other things too. The Audio for "Flying Sorcery" is pleasingly full as he sings of a lady on the tarmac waiting for another shot at wind-in-her-hair. And then we get the big one – the full album cut of "Year Of The Cat" at 6:48 minutes with its extended piano intro – as sophisticated now as it was then.

The follow-up album "Time Passages" yielded more class in the almost Pink Floyd guitar swirl of "Like In Dark Water" and that catchy title track. It's true that tracks like "A Man For All Seasons" and that other saxophone hit "Song On The Radio" could do with an Audio brush up - but the sound here is still more than acceptable. The combo of Acoustic Guitars and Strings on "End Of The Day" is impressive too.

Sure the Sixties Hippy-Dip first two albums are hard to swallow nowadays - but the other three are worth the price of admission alone - especially the brilliant and unfairly forgotten "Zero She Flies" from 1970 - one for Nick Drake lovers out there.

"...You're on my a song on the radio..." Bovril or no - Al Stewart is a melody taste worth acquiring. Get this songsmith in your home...

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