The Graham Weekly Album Review #969

David Knopfler: THE GIVER -- by George Graham

(Mesa Records 79076 airdate 11/23/94)

One of the most commercially successful rock bands of the late 1970s and early 1980s was Dire Straits. The British group was one of those relatively rare phenomena: a creative band with a distinctive sound who found popular success on their own terms, never adopting the conventions of commercial pop. Their best known member is principal composer and lead vocalist Mark Knopfler, but his brother David was one of the founders of Dire Straits back in the mid 1970s, and appeared on their first albums. David Knopfler left the band by the early 1980s, while Mark Knopfler continued Dire Straits on what has become a less-than-full time basis, taking on various solo and side projects, such as film soundtracks and collaboration with country guitarist Chet Atkins. Dire Straits' last full album project was four years ago, in 1991, an excellent opus called From Every Street.

David Knopfler has been releasing very infrequent recordings, and also getting involved with some one-off projects, but he hasn't been heard on record on this side of the Atlantic for quite some years. Now he is out with an album entitled The Giver. It turns out to be a gem, and interestingly, despite the fact that David Knopfler has been out of Dire Straits for over a decade, it's just the kind of album to tide the band's many fans over until the next release, if there ever is one. In fact this is one of the finest recordings to ever emanate from either of the Knopflers or Dire Straits.

David Knopfler sounds a lot like his brother Mark, in his gruff, idiosyncratic vocal style, and his tendency to write moody, often introspective music. And like recent Dire Straits projects, David Knopfler's The Giver is marked by a wonderfully atmospheric sonic treatment to fit the quality of the songs.

It's interesting that despite the decidedly rock direction of the music, by far most all the instrumentation on The Giver is acoustic. Knopfler plays mostly piano, acoustic rhythm guitar and harmonica. The lead guitar is also acoustic almost all the time, as played by Harry Bogdanovs. Bogdanovs does play a bit of electric guitar, along with some keyboards including organ. The rest of the band consist of electric bassist Kuma Harada and drummer Ray Singer. There are some additional musicians such as sax man Chris White, steel guitarist B.J. Cole and Bub Roberts, who is listed as some playing electric guitar. There are also some backing singers, who occasionally add a gospel-influenced quality to some of the music.

Knopfler in his liner notes writes that his objective for the album was "to make an emotionally honest record, not to plumb new depths in high-fidelity technology." Apparently, though, that didn't keep from experimenting with adding various backing musicians in the studio, overdubbing their parts. Interestingly, they ultimately decided against using most of them, reverting back to the simple, mostly acoustic band setting. Despite the rather serious and pensive tenor of the music, Knopfler's notes also describe recording sessions that included a lot of merriment and musical fun and games in the studio. Though a generous twelve songs appear on The Giver, Knopfler says that over twenty were recorded, mostly on first or second takes. Again, the album's sophisticated sound belies that session modus operandi.

Most of the songs on the album are new, written around the recording of the project last year in London, and David Knopfler writes music and lyrics rather like that of his brother Mark. With the combination of that style, along with David Knopfler's vocal, the casual listener could easily be excused for thinking this is an excellent new Dire Straits release.

Things begin with Mercy with the Wine, which sets the tone for much of the album. This piece features with electric piano rather than the usually heard acoustic piano, but the guitars don't plug in. The lyrics lend themselves to the addition of the gospel-influenced backing vocals. <<>>

One of the finest songs on this outstanding album is Hey Jesus, whose lyrics are a plea for justice in a seemingly unfair world. The all acoustic instrumentation, along with the bluesy tune in a minor-key give the Knopfler and company a chance skillfully to set up the requisite mood. <<>>

There are three rather lengthy pieces on the record, though their length doesn't seem to add much to their musical development. The first of them, Domino is a fairly standard rock ballad, nicely performed. <<>> The piece features an electric guitar solo that would be a good fit with Dire Straits. <<>>

How Many Times is one of the most electric tracks on The Giver, but it's also one of the highlights. The short piece is another moody minor-key blues, whose lyrics are a loose paraphrase of Bob Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind. <<>>

The album takes a distinctly jazzy direction on Lover's Fever. The added tenor sax of Chris White helps add to the dark, smoky atmosphere of the song. <<>>

On the other hand, the following song, Carry On, is folky and upbeat in both music and in its encouraging lyrics. Knopfler even gets out his Dylan-style harmonica. <<>>

The closest thing to a title track, The Giver of Gifts, is one of the album's extended pieces. It's another bluesy, moody song that effectively builds in intensity as it goes along, and features some electric slide guitar. <<>>

While many of the compositions of The Giver relate in one way or another to personal relationships. Every Line is a song of parting, an articulate lament on a love lost, though on this one, Knofler's limitations as a vocalist become more apparent. <<>>

Knopfler dedicates this album to the memory of his father, and the senior Knopfler is remembered fondly on a song called A Father and a Son, which might have been inspired by a reconciliation between the parties. <<>>

David Knopfler's new album The Giver is an exceptionally fine record, carrying on the tradition of Dire Straits, the band he and his brother Mark founded in the mid 1970s. David Knopfler left the band long ago, and Mark is usually credited with being the creative force behind the group. But David, on his new album, his first in several years, proves that he is the equal of his brother in terms of writing and arranging sophisticated, moody rock. This album's primarily acoustic instrumentation, combined with the atmospheric sonic treatment further adds to the record's high quality. David Knopfler may not be the best singer, but neither is his brother, and that has not stopped Dire Straits from creating some memorable music. For those waiting for something new from Dire Straits after over three years without a new album, David Knopfler's The Giver should provide satisfying listening. But Dire Straits familial resemblance notwithstanding, the recording is outstanding on its own merits, from the material to the musicianship to the production.

This is George Graham.

(c) Copyright 1994 George D. Graham
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