Sunday, 25 May 2014

Dire Straits (I): the seventies

As I wrote in my last post, enough with The Alan Parsons Project. This time I’ll start talking about one of those bands that are true “classics” for me, one of those bands I remember listening to during long car trips when I was a very young child, before my parents basically confined themselves to classical music and jazz. I do like those two genres now, but when you’re a six year old child, it’s probably easier to like rhythmic, easy-to-the-ear (does that expression even exist? Sorry if I’m making it up) stuff like Sultans of Swing, Walk of Life… yes sir, yes ma’am, I’m talking about Dire Straits. I know they’re known worldwide and this post is probably not going to make you discover anything, but hey, not every post is going to be about virtually anonymous bands that released one album and disappeared from the face of Earth.

The funny thing is that I’ve been listening to Dire Straits my whole life but I know almost nothing about their history, so Aunt Wikipedia and some other websites will have to kindly offer their help when it comes to interesting facts and stuff like that. Everything that isn’t strictly Dire Straits songs, that is.

The band was formed in 1977 by Mark by Mark Knopfler (lead vocals and lead guitar), his younger brother David Knopfler (rhythm guitar and backing vocals), John Illsley (bass guitar and backing vocals), and Pick Withers (drums and percussion), and it was precisely a flatmate of Withers who gave them their name. Only Mark Knopfler (heart and soul of the band) and Illsley would play in all the albums. As I usually do, I won’t really take much time talking about the lineup changes (actually I guess I only do that when writing about Jethro Tull).

They started by recording a five-song demo tape, including Sultans of Swing, which they brought to a guy who had a radio show (Honky Tonk) on BBC Radio London. Although the band just wanted advice, DJ Charlie Gillett, the radio guy, liked Sultans of Swing so much that he played it on his show.

They would sign a recording contract with Phonogram Records two months later, and they’d record their first album (guess its title? Yes, Dire Straits) in February 1978. It had little promotion and wasn’t well received but it came to the attention of someone who worked at Warner Bros Records in New York. I know it’s not the best album in the world and it gets slightly dull at some points, but I certainly don’t understand its bad reception.

I’ve always seen Dire Straits as a band that made pretty straightforward and uncomplicated music. Easy to listen to, easy to like. I’ve read somewhere about their sound being very J.J. Cale-ish at this point, which is probably right. Perhaps they depended too much on Mark Knopfler’s amazing guitar playing, because, after all, there wasn’t anything else especially outstanding and the music was relatively simple. The bass, the drums (I’m no expert at all, I may be wrong!), Knopfler’s voice... not bad at all, but I’ve heard better. They would eventually refine their sound, but there were no keyboards in this album, and the songs are a bit repetitive. Still, it’s a good album and Knopfler’s guitar is excellent as always. It’s definitely worth listening to if you haven’t yet. The best song here, and one of their best known, is, of course, Sultans of Swing. As for the rest, I can’t really choose; all more than decent songs, but none of them especially memorable.

Anyway, back to the Warner Bros thing. Dire Straits got a contract with them, their debut album was re-released worldwide and they received quite a lot of attention in the States, Canada and Australia; eventually, the album went top 10 in every European country, which is saying quite a lot.

Oh, another interesting fact: Bob Dylan saw them live and was so impressed that he invited Knopfler (yes, Mark) and drummer Withers to play on his album Slow Train Coming, which is perhaps my favourite Dylan album. Hell, it’s an amazing album, and it doesn’t get repetitive as most Dylan stuff does when I listen to it (just for the record, I do like Bob Dylan quite a lot, I just usually don’t like to listen to his music for more than half an hour in a row). But this is not the time to write about Dylan, so back to Dire Straits.

Their second album, Communiqué, was released in June 1979. It was the first album ever to enter the German charts at number one in its first week of release. However, I’ve read a couple of not too positive online reviews, which don’t necessarily imply the album is bad, but just a mediocre quality copy of its predecessor.

Well, I disagree. I actually like Communiqué quite a lot more than Dire Straits. The album as a whole seems much less repetitive to me and I find the songs have much more personality individually, if this means something to any of you. The only thing in which Dire Straits is better is in the “battle of the top songs”, meaning that Communiqué’s best song (which is... well, I don’t really know, maybe it’d “officially” be Lady Writer) is not as good as Sultans of Swing. Not even close.

Apart from Follow Me Home, which is, let’s face it, plain boring, all the other songs are good, and you won’t forget them once you start listening to something else (which is what happens with most songs on Dire Straits). News is a beautiful sad song about a guy who basically gambles with his life again and again (I read somewhere that it’s “not particularly entertaining to sit through”. Oh well, I guess it’s a matter of taste).

Communiqué and Angel of Mercy are two easy-going, happy (am I talking about songs as if they were people? There’s something wrong with me), almost pop-ish songs; Portobello Belle is a ballad-like song in which you can, at last, listen to some keyboards here. That’s good. I’m not a big fan of rock bands which confine themselves to the usual kit of electric guitar, drums and bass guitar.

There’s not much more to say... Single Handed Sailor has a cool riff, and Once Upon a Time in the West and Where You Think You’re Going are two good examples of classic less-is-more Dire Straits.

All in all I find Communiqué a very satisfying album, and its neutral reviews don’t make much sense to me. With a guitarist like Mark Knopfler, a big part of the job is done, and it’s pretty hard to screw things up. Their next album would be even better, though. But that's another story.

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Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The Alan Parsons Project (V): it's almost a good thing they split up...

As always lately, I don’t have much time to write, so I’ll quickly finish writing about the relatively short story of The Alan Parsons Project (the other posts are here, here, here and here). Stereotomy and Gaudi were albums that confirmed the band’s decline, although, as their two predecessors, they still have some high quality songs. Parsons and Woolfson would later move on to solo efforts, although that’s another story I may talk about some other time.

And hey guys, it's pseudospamming time. Facebook page for this blog: 

Stereotomy is not an unforgettable album, but it’s at least more diverse than Vulture Culture. Another similar album (meaning another every-song-is-the-same album) would have definitely killed the band for me. Still, the average quality is not very high… the title track is a bit too long, Stereotomy, pt 2 simply shouldn’t be there and I don’t see the point of Chinese Whispers. Also, In The Real World is a catchy rock song… but there are about five million songs written in that style. It’s not as if they discovered America with that song, as we’d say in Spain. It’s an enjoyable song if you’re in the mood, though.

Let’s rather talk about the positive aspects of the album. First of all there’s Beaujolais. I’m totally biased here, actually. I mean, I know the song is totally average, there’s nothing really great here, neither the lyrics, neither the instrumentation in general, neither the guitar solo, which is just ok… but I find it catchy as hell and it puts me in an excellent mood.

The two instrumentals, Urbania and Where’s the Walrus? are very good, as almost always. After the “meh-ish” Hawkeye, from the previous album, the British duo showed that they could still produce very original instrumentals (Urbania is particularly good).

Limelight is one of my favourite songs from them. Again, as with Prime Time, I have a very strong feeling that I heard this song when I was a very young kid and liked it a lot. It’s cheesy pop, but Gary Brooker’s voice totally nails it. Light of the World is even cheesier (yes, they were getting very cheesy and I’ll still use this word a few more times), but hey, cheese is often tasty (lame pseudo-wordgame, I know).

We can find a demo in the bonus tracks, Rumor Goin’ Round. It’s a pity the whole song isn’t there because it sounds interesting. Actually, Woolfson sang it in his solo effort The Alan Parsons Project That Never Was, comprised of (I think) songs they kind of pitched but never really finished. And yes, it sounds great. Simple but rocking (update: due to my channel being deleted, the demo can't be found on youtube).

Ok, let’s finish this. It’s pretty clear The Alan Parsons Project started as a great band and was, by this time, a little-better-than-average one... re-reading my last couple of posts, I’ve realized that I almost only use the words “catchy” and “cheesy” to describe the music, and there’s a reason... I guess that this little trip I've done, writing chronologically about all their music, has made me aware of how big the difference between the first and last albums is, and that makes me especially negative towards their later music. Well, there's more, it's unbearably hot here these days and that makes me hate the world. Joking... kind of.

Gaudi is the band’s last album. As you can guess, the title refers to the Spanish (Catalan) architect. There’s no point in writing much about this, really, it’s the same old story, some pretty good songs (nothing special) and some almost mediocre ones. La Sagrada Familia (best song of the album?), Closer to Heaven, Inside Looking Out (both very cheesy but beautiful if you’re in the mood) and Paseo de Gracia (the instrumental track on this album... maybe their worst?) are the decent/ good songs here. The other three? You’ll forget them as soon as you listen to them.

The duo would later start a new album, but they apparently had their differences and split up. Woolfson would continue working on that album, which he turned into a stage musical. A very good one, actually. But I’ll talk about that some other day. And not in the next post, I really should write about something else for a change. And I'll try to choose something I love so I really get into it. It's just that, being this one of my favourite bands, I wanted to write about all their albums, even if there are some I'm not especially fond of.

Bonus track: Rumor Goin' Round... the final version!

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

The Alan Parsons Project (IV): decline

This is another extremely busy week for me, and it doesn't look this'll change soon. Anyway I didn't only write about Eye in the Sky last week, but also about two more TAPP albums so I just added a couple of things and voilà! And of course I have the moral duty of spamming you with the facebook page for this. It's only good for posting random songs here and there as well as the posts, and I created it because a friend suggested it, but I want to keep it in case I get nice suggestions there.

Anyway, after Eye in the Sky, The Alan Parsons Project took their second and last “gap year”, as 1983 would see no albums from the British band come out. Then, there would be four more albums in four consecutive years, but, sadly, and even though they were reasonably good albums, a slow but steady decline could be felt in them.

The first of those four albums was Ammonia Avenue, which came out in 1984. It features two or three of my favourite songs from the band and a bunch of decent but forgettable songs. Prime Time is one of those songs I’m pretty sure I heard as a kid and liked a lot, but I had no idea who was it from, actually when I heard it on this CD, I had forgotten this song existed. Very catchy stuff, but I guess I like it even more because of what I just said (I don’t know if it even makes sense, but that’s how it is!). The video for the song is kind of... strange?

Then there’s Pipeline, which is one of their top 3 instrumentals. As with many other songs, I can’t properly explain what this song makes me feel, but I just can’t get enough of it. The structure is the one I’ve explained quite a few times in the previous posts: a relatively simple melody which is enriched by more and more instruments. I read some guy in youtube saying it’s a perfect song for driving at night, and I think he may be right. Imagine a dark road that goes on endlessly in the middle of nowhere, no cars, and that song. Good combination.

Dancing on a Highwire is relatively simple soft rock song, nothing special there from an unbiased point of view, but I find myself listening to it very often for a reason I can’t explain. And finally there’s the title track and last song of the album, Ammonia Avenue, probably the best song here along with Pipeline. It slightly reminds me of Silence and I because of Woolfson’s voice and the instrumental intermezzo which sometimes is more cheerful that the sung part (although here that intermezzo is not so brilliant).

And the rest of the album? Slightly disappointing. Let Me Go Home, One Good Reason and You Don’t Believe are fillers in the most strict sense of the word. Totally forgettable songs, in my opinion. Finally there are a couple of cheesy songs, Since the Last Goodbye and Don’t Answer Me, which is one of the band’s best known songs, although it doesn’t quite really do the trick for me. The video is very cool though.

1985’s Project album, Vulture Culture is a bit strange in a way. For the first and only time, there are no arrangements by Andrew Powell, and this makes the album a bit too plain and repetitive. On the other hand, this CD is somewhat more consistent than its predecessor. Not necessarily better, though. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter, what does matter is that The Alan Parsons Project was producing noticeably worse music.

Oh, for those who love the 80s, this is The Album. Speaking in Star Wars style, the synths are strong in this one. Just check Separate Lives. Or, if you have the remastered version of the album, check the alternative mix version of this song. A song which, by the way, is definitely too similar to another track from the album, Sooner or Later.

I guess once you’ve listened to one song of this album, you’ve listened to all of them. It’s not easy to hightlight songs here, all the songs are decent, but none of them is especially good. Let’s Talk About Me is good mostly because of its video, the beautiful ballad Days Are Numbers may be the best song on the album, and... I guess the other little jewel is a bonus track, the acoustic No Answers, Only Questions, featuring Woolfson’s sweet voice. The album is ok to listen on a lazy afternoon if you don’t want to really think about what you’re listening to, but that’s basically it.