Friday, May 14, 2010

It Was 25 Years Ago...

25 years ago yesterday, on May 13, 1985, Dire Straits’ fifth studio album Brothers in Arms was released. It has the distinction of being the first compact disc I ever bought; I had got my first CD player as a high school graduation present (which I suppose suggests that that was 25 years ago, as well...oh, joy) and Brothers in Arms had just come out, so...

I was pretty much a Dire Straits fan from day one—I had their debut 45 “Sultans of Swing” back in 1978, and I pretty much kept up with them throughout much of the early 1980s. Mark Knopfler is a guitar god.

Having formed in Britain as part of the pub rock movement in the mid-1970s that preceded punk, Dire Straits were certainly out of step in their homeland, although they were a hit in the States (“Sultans of Swing” was a top 40 single). They began as a four-piece—Mark Knopfler on lead guitar and vocals, brother David on rhythm guitar, John Illsley on bass, and Pick Withers on drums. Only Illsley would still be in the band by Brothers in Arms.

Their first, eponymously titled record (1978) remains one of the great debuts, with scarcely a bad song on it (“Sultans of Swing” was in it), although their quickly recorded follow-up Communique (1979) had that “difficult second album” feel to it, and the scrabbling guitar solo in “Lady Writer’ was obviously supposed to be the next “Sultans of Swing.” It wasn’t.

David Knopfler had left by the third album Making Movies (1980), which was a great leap forward in style and complexity, and 1982’s Love Over Gold—boasting the compelling 14:25 “Telegraph Road” and one of the greatest, most intense guitar solos ever—went even further. (It remains my favorite of their six studio albums.) A retreat to simpler material resulted in the 1983 EP Twisting by the Pool, by which time Pick Withers had been replaced by ex-Rockpile drummer Terry Williams, albeit temporarily. (It was also in 1983 that Mark Knopfler recorded his first movie soundtrack, to the great Bill Forsyth film Local Hero, and started his career as a producer, producing Bob Dylan’s comeback Infidels.)

By 1985, Dire Straits was little more than Knopfler, Illsley, and a collection of other musicians and less of a proper band. (Session man and ex-King Crimsonsite Tony Levin plays his “stick”—a weird sort of bass—on “One World,” actually my favorite track on the record.) Odd, then, that Brothers in Arms became such a mammoth hit record. The first three tracks are still mainstays of FM radio—“So Far Away,” “Walk of Life,” and of course “Money for Nothing,” the anti-MTV song that ironically became an MTV hit (the computer animation—a novelty in 1985—helped). Actually, it wasn’t really an anti-MTV song; Knopfler often wrote from the perspective of characters, and in this case it’s blue-collar appliance schleppers who think that there’s nothing to being a musician.

I confess to not having been all that impressed with Brothers in Arms at the time; sure I liked it, but it was actually my least favorite of their records at the time. It’s hard to explain why; listening again to it 25 years later, it’s not especially dated like a lot of albums from the 1980s—perhaps the atmospheric pop jazziness of many of the tracks didn’t suit me at the time, but I appreciate it a lot more now. I remember using the new features of my first CD player to skip slower tracks like “Your Latest Trick” and “Why Worry” but with hindsight they’re actually quite nice. Perhaps I’ve mellowed in my old age. “Ride Across the River” always seemed a tad Peter Gabriel-esque, and the title track remains a haunting, beautiful classic.

I think part of the difficulty was that it was the first record I remember hearing that was released at CD length (actually, it’s only 54 minutes and change, although I remember it being longer, for some reason); as someone brought up in the vinyl era, you get used to the rhythm of two ~21:30 sides; song sequencing used to be a bit of an art, and even today albums that go on much longer than 45 minutes can’t always keep my attention. It’s hard to explain.

Following the tremendous success of Brothers in Arms, Knopfler was never particularly comfortable as the rock star, so he retreated into soundtracks and production and didn’t reconvene Dire Straits until 1991 and the so-so On Every Street. And then he called it a day and began a solo career. He remains a guitar god.

So let’s put on Brothers in Arms, celebrate the leaving forever of high school, and recall a time when this kind of computer animation was impressive.

Then we can check out the Weird Al version.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Talk Talk

Via The Onion, of course:
Semi-Literate Former Gold Prospector Given Own Cable News Show

I confess I don't have cable, and avoid cable news channels at all costs, so I don't really know, but from what I've mean, this isn't Glenn Beck?

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Heaven is Whenever We're Together

Two new albums have been receiving non-stop rotation on my CD player/iPod.

Together, the new one by The New Pornographers, is an improvement over 2007's Challengers, and the extensive use of cellos makes it sound a bit like mutant ELO at times. The refrain in the opening song "Moves" I assume is "These things get louder" but I swear it sounds like "Bee stings get louder," the kind of elliptical lyrics that wouldn't be beyond A.C. Newman. There are the usual complement of looney Dan Bejar songs, although they're less looney than, say, "Jackie, Dressed in Cobras" from Twin Cinema, or anything on the last Destroyer album (Bejar's own band, whose last album featured songs titled "Foam Hands," "Leopard of Honor," "Shooting Rockets (From The Desk Of Night's Ape)", for example). But then with tracks called "Valkyrie in the Roller Disco" and "A Bite Out of My Bed" ("Someone took a bite out of my bed"), Newman can be pretty odd, as well. This is one of those records where, after a play or two, you feel like you have known these songs for years. (And with lines like "Honey child, you're not safe here..." someone's been listening to The Smiths.) And only Neko Case's harmonies can make lines like "I wear my Sunday suit to walk the streets/That would feel Byzantine" sound sensible. "Up in the Dark" ("What's love but what turns up in the dark?") is classic NP. Great record; I highly recommend it.

On Tuesday, Heaven is Whenever, the new one by The Hold Steady, came out. They may never make a record as good as 2006's Boys and Girls in America again, but this one is far superior to 2008's Stay Positive. You have to like a song ("The Weekenders") that begins with the line "There was that whole weird thing with the horses." (Actually, it's the return of the characters from the song "Chips Ahoy!" about a girl who can psychically pick winning horses. Hmm...anyone got her number?) "She said the theme of this party is the industrial age/You came in dressed as a train wreck." THS's keyboard player quit, so there is more guitar on this one, which is fine by me. It's not hard to imagine "Rock Problems" being sung by Ray Davies on a Misfits/Low Budget-era Kinks record. The opening song, "The Sweet Part of the City" ("the parts with the bars and restaurants"--indeed) begins with a little riff that is unfortunately vaguely reminiscent of Jefferson Starship's "Find Your Way Back," which I hope was unintentional. In the title track, "She said Hüsker Dü got huge/But they started in St. Paul/Do you remember 'Makes No Sense at All.'" (I do, actually--it was on Flip Your Wig, as well as a 1985 EP which also included Hüsker Dü performing a cover of not only The Byrds' "8 Miles High" but also "Love is All Around"--yes, the theme to The Mary Tyler Moore Show--which has to be heard to be believed.) The song continues, "Heaven is the whole of the heart/Paradise by the dashboard light/Utopia is a band/They sang 'Love is the Answer.'" And that pretty much sums up the bulk of THS's influences. Great record; I highly recommend it.

There's no video up for any of the songs yet, but who needs video when you have audio anyway?