With all the clarity of dream – revisiting On Every Street

“Success I adore. It means I can buy 1959 Gibson Les Pauls and Triumph motorcycles. But I detest fame. It interferes with what you do and has no redeeming features at all.”

Background:

As has been pointed out many a time before and no doubt will be whenever they are written about or discussed, Dire Straits were a great band at the wrong time. A four-piece routed in the classic-rock style emerging from London’s pub-rock scene at a time when punk was holding sway here in the UK, epitomised by John Lydon’s ‘I Hate Pink Floyd’ t-shirt.

Yet one of the reasons Dire Straits are still written about and no doubt will be for some time to come was that they did find success thanks to Mark Knopfler’s fluid, finger-picking guitar style and ability to come up with something as catchy as ‘Sultans of Swing’ on their first outing. ‘Sultans of Swing’ managed to break the top ten on both sides of the Atlantic and their first album, Dire Straits – produced by Steve Winwood’s older brother Muff and released in 1978 – was a similar success.

Less than ten years later, in September 1988 with five albums behind them and after an 18-month tour of 247 sold-out stadium and arena shows, Knopfler – who had taken control of the band completely by the time of 1980’s Making Movies (a move helped along byJimmy Iovine taking him to watch a Springsteen session where everybody called Bruce ‘Boss’) in a move which had seen the departure of his brother David and original drummer Pick Withers – dissolved the band.

All the numbers and constant attention had lost meaning for the band, especially Knopfler who would tell Rolling Stone “”A lot of press reports were saying we were the biggest band in the world. There’s not an accent then on the music, there’s an accent on popularity. I needed a rest.”‘

It was, in hindsight, a pretty appropriate place to call it a day – having risen from an unlikely breakthrough to the millions of sales achieved by Brothers In Arms. Those first five albums are stuffed with great tunes and I’ll happily put any one of them at any time – especially Love Over Gold which is by far and away their finest work even if Brothers In Arms became the monster in terms of sales. And yet they had one more in them..

On Every Street

After Dire Straits we dissolved in ’88,  Mark Knopfler recorded a soundtrack for Last Exit To Brooklyn and formed The Notting Hillbillies, a country-leaning group who released Missing… Presumed Having a Good Time in 1990. It felt like, free of the expectation and incumbent attention given to anything Dire Straits, Knopfler was having, well a good time.

Then, in early 1991, the band – well, bass plater John Illsley, Knopfler and manager Ed Bicknell – met for lunch and decided to reconvene Dire Straits. Just like that, apparently. Personally, I can’t help but feel there was a little more to it than that because the resultant On Every Streets now – having spent more time of it late than I have for years after picking up a copy on cassette for a quid – feels like an album of two halves, a split-personality of an album that not only suffers from the CD bloat that was rife during that era (especially ironic given Brothers In Arms the first album to sell a million copies on that format was a much more concise effort) but also feels like it suffers from a lack of interest  from Knopfler himself across several tracks.

The time of release for On Every Street was as inauspicious as their debut only this time even the band members would admit that, following the album’s tour, “whatever the zeitgeist was that we had been part of, it had passed.” 1991 was also the year of ALT ROCK in deserved big letters – Nevermind, Ten, Badmotorfinger were breaking grunge out of Seattle and U2 had discovered irony and wrap around sunglasses in time for Achtung Baby! It didn’t feel like the time for a new Dire Straits record (any more than, really, 1994 would feel like time for a new Pink Floyd album) but, now, free of the judgement of the time, On Every Street has a lot of good stuff on it. It’s just that, sandwiched between are some real duff moments.

If you look at it almost as an ‘every-other-track’ album, On Every Street carries its weight. I’m starting to wonder if the conversation at that lunch in 1991 was more along of the lines of a record label pointing out that one more album was due and that if Knopfler wanted to keep major-label backing for his solo work, these new songs needed to go out under the Dire Straits name one last time. Or perhaps I’m being cynical – there’s no such statement or quote to attest to this but I can’t shake the feeling that those tracks which feel like Knopfler isn’t giving it his most on are the most ‘Twisting By The Pool’ / ‘Walk of Life’ style blatant attempts at appeasing the expectation of a ‘Dire Straits hit song’. The guiltiest? ‘Heavy Fuel’ and ‘My Parties’. I mean, take just those two off and you’re down to a stronger album already, right?

But, back to the every-other-track / cd bloat theory that’s hiding a stronger album theory.

‘Calling Elvis’ isn’t a bad song, it’s pretty good and Knopfler’s guitar work is understated but lets loose in a way that’s still delicious all these years later. The album’s title track follows and ‘On Every Street’ is a gorgeous tune – subject matter that calls back to ‘Private Investigations’ and a guitar solo that takes over three minutes in that I can listen to daily and still love.

Not only that but ‘Fade to Black’ has a lovely hushed, noir-like low-key vibe with Knoplfer dropping licks aplenty and an organ part that recalls Making Movies in a way. But to get to it you have to skip ‘When It Comes To You’ – a song that’s not the worst on the album but doesn’t really offer much and jars when listened to in flow. Skip over ‘The Bug’ (you only need to hear it once) and you’re back to the gold (as in Love Over) territory again with another stately, brooding and gorgeously played ‘You and Your Friend’. To me it plays like a wonderful hybrid of ‘The Man’s Too Strong’ and ‘Brothers in Arms’ in style and it’s easily a highpoint:

Skip the next track – the easy, low-hanging fruit lyrics of ‘Heavy Fuel’ (“When my ugly big car won’t a-climb this hill, I’ll write a suicide note on a hundred dollar bill”), and move straight on to ‘Iron Hand’, easily one of Knopfler’s finest. From this point, save for ‘My Parties’ which feels like b-side ‘Badges, Posters, Stickers, T-Shirts’, the album remains pretty decent.

That’s the thing that links all the ‘meh’ tracks here whether it’s ‘The Bug’, ‘Heavy Fuel’ or ‘My Parties’ – they all feel like the actual b-sides that were released with the album’s singles. When they were recently made available on Spotify I  was keen to hear but then ‘Kingdom Come’ and ‘Millionaire Blues’ are actually pretty interchangeable with ‘The Bug’ and ‘Heavy Fuel’, even Knopfler’s vocals sound as uncommitted. Which makes me think not only are these tunes that MK could toss off in his sleep but that were it not for CD runtimes and presumed label pressure, they too would’ve been trimmed off.

Back to the good stuff – ‘Ticket To Heaven’ has a much lighter, folkier and almost Celtic touch with a few strings added on and Knopfler’s in great voice (it’s a good signpost for his solo work on The Ragpicker’s Dream). ‘Planet of New Orleans’ is back to the noir-vibe of ‘Fade To Black’ but with extra guitar atmosphere and sax while ‘How Long’ is as obvious a light-hearted and folk-leaning Mark Knopfler solo song as it’s possible to be and serves as a fitting sign-off on the last Dire Straits album while remaining optimistic and hinting at what was to come.

You see, that’s the thing – where it’s really good On Every Street works brilliantly. For a long time Dire Straits had ceased to be the ‘band’ it started out as and had become a vehicle for Knopfler’s song writing with John Illsley along to pluck the bass. At this point Knopfer was leaning to a much different style to that which had proven the biggest ‘hits’ for Dire Straits but there was – and still is – a huge amount of great tunes to be found. Who knows – had On Every Street been allowed to focus on that element, without the filler and the negative reviews it drew as a result, maybe he’d still be releasing albums under the band name rather than his own.

As it was, the album drew lukewarm reviews at best though through a heavy tour schedule (300 shows in two years which were documented on the patch OnThe Night live album) and promotion still shifted 10 million. Knopfler’s second marriage fell apart, the tour was stressful and overblown and reminded all of what caused the first end back in ’88. Thus it was that, in 1992, Knopfler said ‘goodnight’ to 40,000 people in Spain for the last time as Dire Strait’s frontman and stepped into a solo career that has been producing solid solo albums and soundtracks since  ’96. The band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018 – there was no reunion and Knopfler didn’t attend, with John Illsley stating “I’ll assure you it’s a personal thing. Let’s just leave it at that.”

Oh, here’s On Every Street, don’t forget to skip a few:

 

 

 

Revisiting: 14 Songs

Background:

I got into The Replacements too late. I had to, really, they split up before I was eleven… What I mean is that they’re one of those bands that when I finally did get into them I hungrily devoured the lot and couldn’t believe that I’d left it so long to be hearing these songs. They’re a band that cast a long shadow and I’d heard more about them and their influence before I’d even heard a note of their music.

In fact, my first introduction was via the two Paul Westerberg solo tracks on the Singles soundtrack*. Having made the connection between singer and former band I went back, then forward into Westerberg’s solo discography.

14_songs_paul_westerberg_album_-_cover_artConsidered by many as pioneers of the alt-rock scene and with a legacy that’s at odds with the success they achieved during their run, The Replacements blew out of Minneapolis in 1979 as punk rock band whose début album, Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, was a raw, raucous affair but, by the release of the follow up, Hootenany, the band was quickly evolving and songs like ‘Within Your Reach‘ marked the way forward as elements of blues, folk and chiming pop were bought to the fore along with Westerberg’s insightful and maturing song-writing skills. The difference between ‘Kids Don’t Follow‘ and the beautiful ‘Achin’ To Be‘ was massive.

Success wasn’t to be theirs, though. As much as they may have been at the forefront of the alt-rock scene, the self-destructive nature of the band meant that by the time the world started to pay attention, they were already imploding and they’re remembered more for potential than for breaking through. Poor production, famously disastrous live shows and TV appearances and internal strife meant that 1990’s All Shook Down would be their final album. That album was originally intended to be Paul Westerberg’s first solo album and, as such, features predominantly session musicians. The label talked him into making it a Replacements album. It would be three years before his first solo album would arrive…

The band (well, Tommy Stinson and Paul Westerberg) would reform 22 years later for a series of live shows, a victory lap for the praise and recognition they’d received after their split. There were a few abortive attempts at recording but Westerberg’s heart wasn’t in it and during the final shows he’d decorate his t-shirts with giant letters, eventually spelling out the missive: I HAVE ALWAYS LOVED YOU. NOW I MUST WHORE MY PAST.

14 Songs:

So, on a bit of a Bruce break**, I flicked as randomly as possible through my iTunes and landed on the brilliant ‘Runaway Wind’ from 14 Songs, which lead to digging out the CD and spending a few days with it in the car for the first time in a long time.

While it’s not exactly a masterpiece, it’s bloody good and starts with a run of four great songs, kicking off with a highlight, ‘Knockin’ On Mine’:

Don Was was a big fan of this album and would play it daily while recording The Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge. I can get that, I love the guitar tones on this album and there’s a few on here that are clearly indebted to the Stones – this, the loose grove of ‘Dice Behind Your Shades’ and ‘Silver Naked Ladies‘ whose great instrumentation, bluesy guitar, honky-tonk piano (courtesy of Ian McLagan) and outright Jagger impression are so obvious I’d lay money on Westerberg having done a Jagger Shuffle*** dance in the studio. It’s a shame the lyrics are on the cack side. Don Was would produce Westerberg’s third solo effort and told him that Keith Richards would spend each morning cranking ‘Knockin’ On Mine’ out at full volume.

It’s assumed that ‘World Class Fad’ is about Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain… There’s an oft-commented upon similarity between the pair’s bands and Courtney Love was a big Replacements fan, her band often murdering covering ‘Unsatisfied‘. Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes**** had said “Yeah, Nevermind is a great Replacements record” which must’ve really cheesed Cobain. In the liner notes to the Westerberg’s Best Of (the brilliantly titled Besterberg) he slyly comments that “someone very famous thought it was about him” neither denying or confirming that it was… if that’s the case then “You wax poetic about things pathetic, as long as you look so cute” must have stung a bit. It’s a great tune though.

There was always a dichotomy in The Replacements between the soft and the hard. Westerberg has surmised it as “Sometimes you just love the little acoustic songs, and other times you want to crank the goddamn amp up, and those two parts of me are forever entwined.” That meant songs like ‘Here Comes A Regular’ rubbed shoulders with ‘Bastards of Young’ on Tim and the same is true in his early solo work though, free from the burden of being in a ‘punk’ band, there’s not so much hesitancy to bring out the acoustics or slower material.

‘Runaway Wind’ – for example is a great tune. Originally written for and turned down by Robin Zander, it’s vocal was recorded in just one take and features a brilliant Westerberg lyric: “You trade your telescope for a keyhole, Make way for the grey that’s in your brown, as dreams make way for plans, see ya watch life from the stands.”

Elsewhere tracks like ‘Even Here We Are’ and ‘Black Eyed Susan‘ are delicate, gentle acoustic numbers whose lo-fi production choices make them sound like lost, dusted-off gems sandwiched as they are between glossier sounding tunes and ‘Things’ is a delightfully sloppy yet endearing number. ‘Black Eyed Susan’ was recorded in Westerberg’s kitchen and the sound and lack of success in capturing a better take meant it made the album while ‘Things’ showed that even in his romantic tunes, Westerberg could add a tinge of sadness: “I could use some breathing room but I’m still in love with you.”

Even the best Replacements albums had some outright howlers buried in amongst the gold (I really don’t think anyone is going to make a case for ‘Lay It Down Clown’) and on 14 Songs that particular number is ‘A Few Minutes Of Silence’ – if the album had been called 13 Songs the track wouldn’t have been missed.

With the comic, cynical take on plastic surgery, ‘Mannequin Shop‘ (“You look bitching you look taut, I`m a itchin’ to know what was bought?”) oddly sequenced between the harder, more straight-ahead and solid rockers ‘Something Was Me’ and ‘Down Love’ I can’t help but think that, with better attention to the running order and a tiny bit more selectiveness on the tunes, 14 Songs would’ve gone from being bloody good to great in no time. It’s got a real band dynamic that’s often missing on singer-songwriter albums, a relaxed vibe and finds just the right balance between the two-sides of Westerberg’s writing, wrapping up his romanticism, wry lyrics and self-depreciating humour in a very strong collection of songs.

It wasn’t to be, though. Much like his former band, the album generated some strong reviews but failed to catch on commercially. By the time he released his solo record, the bands who he had influenced and shared listing with on the Singles soundtrack were getting the attention. From here there would be two more major-label albums before he’d ditch working with producers and go the home-recording route where he’d go on to pen some of his best work, even if not so many heard it (see 2008’s 49:00, if you can) before, following the 2012-15 Replacements reunion,  forming The I Don’t Cares with Juliana Hatfield. Their album, Wild Stab, is well worth a listen, too and I’ll finish off with a tune from it…. “Dreams I had before are now too bored to even show up.”

 

*If we’re talking best movie soundtracks (which I probably will one day) then this one will be way up the top of the list.

**It’s a lot of fun but I’m now about to hit the Top Five (which means I’ve already cleared fifteen) and could do with cleansing my aural palate a bit.

***We’ve all done it. I even had ‘Mixed Emotions’ played at my wedding so I could make use of the wooden dance floor this way.

****Is this really the first time I’ve mentioned The Black Crowes here? Given how near-perfect those first three albums were I’m very surprised…

Revisiting: Collapse Into Now

Revisiting…..

Since he was old enough to pull himself up and stand holding onto the shelves, my son would reach into the CD shelves that line our hall and pull out an album (or a handful) while I put on my shoes and zipped his coat of a morning. Initially because that’s what toddlers do but subsequently because he’d learn that when he thrust one into my hands odds were that I’d take it out with us and we’d listen to it during the drive – him to the child-minder and me onwards to the office – and the idea of choosing the music for the day appealed to him greatly.

Aside from the fact that he’s already forming favourites and calling out requests (“where’s that Dinosaur Jr?” “Foo Fighters please”) from the back seat before he’s three, it’s meant that as his physical development allowed him to do more than repeatedly grab clusters from the M/N area – he’s been selecting albums that I wouldn’t otherwise do so for myself and, in many instances, hadn’t listened to for years and giving me the impetus to spin things I hadn’t for some time.

Hence; revisiting.

Collapse Into Now

In 1997, a couple of years after a suffering a brain aneurysm on stage in Switzerland, and as the band were due to commence sessions for a new album, drummer Bill Berry told his band mates that he was leaving REM. In the seventeen years he’d sat on his drum stool behind Messrs Stip, Buck and Mills the four-piece from Athens, Georgia had gone from underground, college-scene heroes, broken through with Document and achieved major-label success and sales with Out of Time, Automatic For The People and assured permanent rotation wherever music videos are played with clips for ‘Everybody Hurts’, ‘Losing My Religion’ and, to their own chagrin, ‘Shiny Happy People’.

After announcing his intentions Berry added a caveat; he would only vacate his stool if the others agreed to carry on. As such, the publicity for the band’s next album Up often contained Stipe’s “I guess a three-legged dog is still a dog. It just has to learn to run differently” quote.

I’d gotten quite into REM at this point in time. While I’d played ‘Drive’ on the jukebox at a holiday camp one summer to the point that the guy working there ended up pulling the plug (to be fair he at least gave me my 50p back even if his ‘I think that song breaks it’ lie was weakly delivered0 – it was New Adventures In Hi-Fi that I held and still hold as a great album (‘Departure’, ‘Bittersweet Me’, ‘How The West Was Won and Where It Got Us’, ‘Electrolite’??!) As such Up was purchased by me on day of release. Sadly Berry’s departure also marked the point I pretty much started losing interest. Up has some good songs (3.5 at last count), Reveal was too stodgy and heavy-handed – and marked the last REM album I’d buy for some time – and Around The Sun (or what I’ve heard of it) had all the punch and staying power of a kitten’s fart. Save for the (Berry-co-written) single ‘Bad Day’ from the Warner Bros comp it seemed like the now-three-piece from Athens, Georgia weren’t going to be finding rotation on my stereo again.

But then…. perhaps tired of the inertia and lukewarm reception surrounding their output – Around the Sun had shifted under 240,000 copies in the US – and enthused by working with (finally) a new producer, REM engaged again and, working under tighter pressure and deadlines, released Accelerate; an aggressively upbeat and purposeful album that was, as one critic said, the “sound of a band having enjoyed a good word with themselves”.

For all it’s praise – and I’ve still not added it to my own shelves – Accelerate was a very single-focus album and lacked the subtleties that enthused their earlier and better tracks. I don’t think there was a single mandolin lick to be found. Still, it made me listen again so that, in 2011, when word of a new album and lyric videos for ‘Überlin’ and ‘Mine Smell Like Honey’ dropped, Collapse Into Now was one I bought on day of release.

Until this last week I hadn’t listened to it for a couple of years but each and every time I hear this album I find more to enjoy – that naggingly catchy riff that kicks off proceedings with ‘Discoverer’, the vocal power of ‘Oh My Heart’, the breaking out of that joyous chorus of ‘Mine Smell Like Honey’ or Eddie Vedder’s contribution to ‘It Happened Today’, the blast that is ‘All The Best’ (in which Stipe portends their plans with “it’s just like me to overstay my welcome”) or the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it joy of ‘That Someone Is You’:

Collapse Into Now may not be perfect but then no REM album is 100% (‘Star Me Kitten’, anyone? No, didn’t think so). It is their most consistent and successfully multi-faceted album for a long time and one in which the sheer weight of positives and the quality of the production outnumber its weaker points. Rather than simply play it fast as they’d done with Accelerate, the songs on this album are given space to breath, there are textures that harken back to their earlier work without sounding like re-treads and there’s an overwhelming sense that, once again, they’re enjoying what they do.

Once you’ve reclaimed your reputation – what do you do, though? With their deal with Warner Bros at an end, would they sign to an independent or will they make another massive-money deal? Will they continue this upward trend in quality with another album? With a seemingly-rekindled joy of playing live will they tour?

But they didn’t go for any of that. For it turns out that when they got together to record Collapse Into Now they did so with the idea of  “going out on a high note.” And, in September 2011 (just five months after the album’s release) REM announced their decision to call it a day. With Collapse Into Now, to my ears at least and this is my blog after all, they did just that. After all, I doubt people would be clamouring for more if the last think they’d released had been ‘Leaving New York’.