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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1216

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Mark Knopfler: Sailing to Philadelphia
by George Graham

(Warner Bros. 47753 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/25/2000)

Twenty five years ago, one of the more interesting bands to come out of England was Dire Straits. Their front-man, lead vocalist and distinctive guitar player was Mark Knopfler, who founded the band with his brother David. Starting with their offbeat first hit, Sultans of Swing the group grew to be one of the most successful bands of the period, selling some 80 million albums, and packing stadiums on world tours. While Dire Straits gradually wound down with the personnel becoming rather variable, Mark Knopfler increasingly became its focus, and at the same time launched a solo career creating music for films. He also became rather musically peripatetic, doing projects with everyone from the traditional Irish band the Chieftains to country guitar legend Chet Atkins.

After a series of these side projects, four years ago Knopfler released Golden Heart, his full first solo album, which was a outstanding effort that combined the spaciousness of the latter-day Dire Straits with Knopfler's wide-ranging musical interests, reflected by the album having been recorded in Dublin, Nashville and Los Angeles.

Now, after more film music projects including Wag the Dog and Metroland, Knopfler is out with only his second solo album, Sailing to Philadelphia. And like its predecessor it turns out to be a gem. Although the recording venues are not stated in the new CD's credits, it is also fairly wide-ranging stylistically, with an interesting collection of guests, including James Taylor and Van Morrison appearing. But unlike Golden Heart, this CD has a regular band that runs through the whole album and gives it a more unified sound, though it is no less large in its musical vision than its predecessor.

Knopfler calls his band the 96ers, since that was when they got together and have been collaborating since. They include musicians who were prominent on Golden Heart, including two keyboard men, Guy Fletcher, who was in the last incarnation of Dire Straits, and studio ace Jim Cox, guitarist Richard Bennett, who provides a nice foil to Knopfler's guitar style, plus bassist Glen Worf, a Nashville regular, and drummer Chad Cromwell. The two keyboard line-up provides a certain richness of sound, and contributes to the sometimes atmospheric quality of the album. Knopfler's guitar work remains distinctive and very tasteful. While he does some worthy solos on both electric and acoutsic guitars and Dobros, he seems to want to blend into the ensemble arrangements more this time. Vocally, Knopfler is in great form, using his one-of-a-kind gruff voice to great effect, with surprising sensitivity on some songs.

Lyrically, the album is a set of separate, unrelated songs. But Knopfler later realized several of them touched on the idea of perseverance and aspiration. The CD contains some of the most interesting lyrics Knopfler has written, including a consideration of the lives of the famous 18th Century surveyors Mason and Dixon, the subject of racial discrimination as suffered by a Gospel group, and the first meeting of a mail-order bride and her husband-to-be. On the other hand, the album also contains some songs of more pedestrian subjects, including yet another song by Knopfler about pop stardom. The guest vocalists add a nice touch. Sometimes their contributions can be subtle, as in the case of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, or Squeeze's Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, while both James Taylor and Van Morrison are given some lead vocals of their own.

The hour-long CD opens with a piece called What It Is with somewhat cryptic lyrics with images of the refuge that a tavern provides to people. It's probably the track most reminiscent of Dire Straits' sound. <<>>

The most fascinating track on the album is Sailing to Philadelphia, about Mason and Dixon, a surveyor and astronomer who came from England to America to determine the southern border of Pennsylvania. Knopfler had been reading about the historical duo, was sufficiently taken by their story to create this song, and cast James Taylor in the role of Charles Mason, to Knopfler's Jeremiah Dixon. <<>>

Also with a historical bent is Baloney Again, the ironic story of the discrimination suffered by a black Gospel group as they travelled about the trying to spread the good word. Knopfler brings in a vocal quartet to join him on this vaguely bluesy piece. <<>>

Van Morrison makes his appearance on The Last Laugh with more straightforward lyrics of a somewhat uncertain relationship. Presumably, in a nod to Morrison the arrangement takes a turn to the R&B ballads that have been a part of Morrison's influences for many years. <<>>

While most of the album is rather laid-back and even contemplative in sound, there are a couple of rockers. Do America, is catchy song that takes up the theme of rock stardom that Knopfler has been writing about since the big Dire Straits hit Money for Nothing. This song takes a more positive viewpoint, and is slightly retro in its sound. <<>>

One of the stylistic tricks at which Mark Knopfler excels on this CD is combining a rootsy, folky guitar sound with the very atmospheric keyboard work by Guy Fletcher with his synthesizers. That is especially effective on a track called Wanderlust, in which Knopfler's vocal performance manages to embody both of those contrasting directions. <<>>

Another of the rockers, taking a surprisingly bluesy turn, is a song called Junkie Girl, whose title is descriptive of its subject matter. It's the story of a woman who kept up her substance abuse problems after the man who loved her cleaned up his act, so they went their separate ways. <<>>

Difford and Tilbrook of Squeeze make their not very obvious appearance on Silvertown Blues apparently inspired by a huge dome-like construction project in England in an area where Knopfler and the members of Squeeze grew up. <<>>

The album ends with Sands of Nevada the story of a gambler, whose desolate, expansive musical setting provides some of this album's most evocative moments. <<>>

As productive as Mark Knopfler has been with Dire Straits, his various collaborations and guest appearances on other people's records, along with his continuing stream of film soundtracks, Sailing to Philadelphia is only his second solo album project, coming four years after its predecessor. But it was worth the wait. It's another great example of the skillful nexus of compositions, lyric writing, arrangements, nonpareil musicianship, and general sonic excellence that have been a Knopfler trademark for over two decades. While not as geographically and stylistically diverse as Knopfler's last album, the new production's use of guest vocalists adds an interesting new facet, and working with a regular band adds a degree of musical unity to the album of song that are otherwise fairly unrelated lyrically. It comes together impressively in an album that is both a pleasure to listen to, and also fascinating and deep.

As is typical for a Mark Knopfler album, the mix is superb. The blend of synthesizers and Knopfler's distinctive guitar work is a textbook example of first-class sonic production. Compliments to recording and mix engineer Chuck Ainlay. Because this CD was released on a major US label, where industry practice is to compress the sound in a loudness war with the competition, the music's dynamic range is degraded on some tracks, so when some of the songs build to louder passages, the music does not gain much. But other of the tracks have greater difference between soft and loud. Overall, it makes a worthy showpiece for a good stereo system.

Mark Knopfler is another of those relatively rare performers from the rock era who continues to get better with time long after his pop hit heyday.

(c) Copyright 2000 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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