Al Stewart: Between the Wars -- by George Graham
Starting with the Beatles' groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album in 1967, so-called concept albums became a staple of the rock music world. From the Who's Quadrophenia to a succession of Moody Blues albums, the late 1960s and early 1970s brought forth a great number of LPs that were more than just a bunch of songs, but records whose music was tied together either by a topic, or just woven into a stylistic continuum.
Like so many other of those distinctly Sixties phenomena, concept albums gradually faded away, as the complexion of the pop music world changed, and the commercial media reduced much of the public's attention span to seconds. But concept albums have not become completely extinct. The New Age music world is especially hospitable to recordings revolving around an idea, such as endangered species or celebrating the natural beauty of a certain locale. In the rock world, last year singer-songwriter Peter Himmelman created a what amounts to a good new rock opera entitled Skin. Now this week, we have what I think is the finest, most intelligent so-called concept album I have heard in many years. It's by Al Stewart and bears the descriptive title Between the Wars.
British singer-songwriter Al Stewart has been recording since 1967, but is best known for his 1976 hit Year of the Cat. He has released a succession of albums that tended toward a kind of sophistication and a Continental aura, with several of his songs being set in the Old World. Stewart also has written several songs over the years woven around historical events into which his characters are often caught up.
Now on his new album, Stewart creates an entire suite of songs about life in Europe between the World Wars, and comes up with the best album of his I have heard in his career. The compositions are lyrically intelligent, and by the way, well-researched, and fit together remarkably well to paint a picture of the time from the Treaty of Versailles to the beginning of 1939. Making it all the more enjoyable is the musical setting -- all acoustic in a nostalgic jazzy but decidedly European style reminiscent of the Django Reinhardt and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France. He is joined by another British-born guitarist Laurence Juber in this American-made recording. Juber spent a while with Paul McCartney's Wings band, and recently has been doing some New Age-flavored acoustic music. Juber arranged the album and co-composed two of the tracks with Stewart.
The result is a delightful recording that reads like a period novel, and draws you in with its attractive swinging arrangements that provide the perfect setting for the lyrics' description of life both big and small during the period. Many Americans from the post World-War II generations will likely be inclined to dig up the history books to refresh their memories about some of the characters and events that may by now be dim memories from World History class, but which now seem to take on renewed relevance in the fractured post Iron Curtain Continent.
In addition to Stewart and Juber who provide the acoustic guitars, other musicians who appear regularly on Between the Wars include bassist Tim Landers, saxophonist and clarinetist Sam Riney, and drummer Bruce Gary. But like the music of Django Reinhardt, drums are not often heard. Also in the Reinhardt tradition is the addition of violinist Bobby Bruce on several of the tracks.
While all thirteen of the album's compositions revolve around the time and place, they are not strictly chronologically arranged. Nevertheless, they do roughly move from toward the beginning of the Second World War as the album progresses. The songs cover big events and small, from the moves of powerful politicians and kings to high society to more ordinary people, most of whom are full of a sense of optimism which, in retrospect, seems so ironic.
Things get under way with a song called Night Train to Munich. It's about a mysterious character, perhaps a spy or someone trying to escape across a border. The musical arrangement by Juber evokes both the feeling of the era, and the sense of urgency felt by the song's protagonist. <<>>
On this album Al Stewart likes to drop names, both of political figures and stars of the day. The Age of Swing weaves a bluesy picture of both the elegant and darker side of life in the Jazz Age. <<>>
One of the big events of the Roaring Twenties was Charles Lindbergh's famous solo crossing of the Atlantic. Of course, there were plenty of songs back then about the event, and even a dance called the Lindy. Al Stewart attempts to put the event into the context of the times with his song Lindy Comes to Town. With the musical setting, one might very well be tempted to dance the Lindy. <<>>
A piece with a musical accompaniment perhaps a bit more familiar to Al Stewart fans is A League of Notions. Despite the folky arrangement, the song is one of the best musical history lessons I have heard in some years. And with Eastern Europe so much in flux in recent years, the song's lyrics takes on a contemporary relevance. <<>>
Between the Wars is very much tied together by its lyrics, but the CD contains two very pleasing instrumentals that also evoke that period. The first is called Betty Boop's Birthday, and with the addition of Bobby Bruce's violin, it strongly evokes the sound of Django Reinhardt, Stephane Grappelli and the 1930s-era Quintet of the Hot Club of France.
What amounts to being the title track Life Between the Wars is another delightful little vignette evincing the elegant side of the period, again with a fair amount of historical name-dropping. <<>>
Of course, that period in Europe was hardly all optimism and elegance. Stewart shows the other side on a fascinating piece called Joe the Georgian a reference to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. It's given an appropriately Eastern European musical setting. <<>>
Another of the events of the period was the Spanish Civil War, and Stewart addresses that in a piece called Always the Cause, which is given an appropriately Spanish and martial musical setting. <<>>
The irony of the period is summed up in the penultimate track, Laughing into 1939, about a New Year's Eve party optimistically looking forward to the fateful year that would see the start of the Second World War. It's the kind of song that puts Al Stewart at his best. Musically, it is also more in Stewart's regular style. <<>>
The album closes with its second instrumental, The Black Danube, a slower, sadder piece presumably that hints at the upheaval that was to come. <<>>
Al Stewart's new album with Laurence Juber entitled Between the Wars is a fine recording that revives the old-fashioned "concept album" in a particularly literate and tasteful way. Though Stewart has been weaving history into some of his songs over the years, this is, I think, his finest effort, further enhanced by the instrumental settings inspired by Europe in the Twenties and Thirties. Guitarist Juber puts in some very nice playing, and was responsible for the arrangements.
The only disappointing aspect of the album is its sound, and sonically, it's a mess. Though the mix is such that you can hear most of the instruments most of the time, the acoustic instrumentation sounds shrill and brash, and the mix is very heavily compressed, inexcusably so for an acoustic album. Even Stewart's voice sounds as if it was being "run in the red" as they say -- on the verge of distortion from excessive recording level. The downright bad sound really detracts from an otherwise excellent album. Mix engineer Eddie King should have his ears examined, or stop listening to old Phil Spector records.
Bad sonics notwithstanding, Al Stewart's new album Between the War shows that after a quarter century of recording, the British singer-songwriter is still capable of creating some of his best work ever.
This is George Graham.
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