Sunday, December 21, 2008

Year Of The Cat - A Portal To Time Passages

Al Stewart signed with RCA (UK) and immediately bowled everyone over with the album ‘Year of the Cat’, arguably the masterpiece effort of his career. His previous two albums had effectively been rehearsals, implementing the formula, and getting the balance just right. The album is missing a central story arch, but retains a strong sense of continuity and cohesion via Parsons’ exquisite production and Al Stewart’s sensory provoking narratives, which both enchant and captivate the listener. The aforementioned title track ‘Year of the Cat’ was the best of a great bunch. It hit the U.S. charts in late ‘76, and went on to peak at #8 in early ‘77. Australia succumbed to the song’s spell soon after (#13), but the U.K. proved less receptive (punk had just exploded), and ‘Year of the Cat’ could only claw its way to #31. The album ‘Year of the Cat’ achieved platinum certification in the U.S. (#5), and hit the top 10 in Australia (UK#38). The follow up single ‘On The Border’ (US#42) dealt with some weighty issues, challenging the listener to contemplate matters of a political, temporal, and metaphysical nature - it’s a credit to Stewart and Parsons that potentially disturbing themes were presented in an engaging package. For all the complex rumination of ‘On The Border’, Stewart was able to keep it simple on a song like ‘If It Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It’, which means no more than the literal interpretation of the title. Following the huge acclaim for ‘Year of the Cat’, Al Stewart switched U.S. labels from Janus to Arista, with the unintended consequence of a protracted legal dispute. That aside, Stewart recorded the follow up album ‘Time Passages’, released in September ‘78. Once more Parsons was in the production booth, and in concert with Stewart, the result for the ‘Time Passages’ album was even more refined production, and a soft rock tint to things. Stewart’s elegant, finely crafted historical vignettes were again enhanced with cinematic arrangements and slick production values, but the tracks retained a freshness and simplicity, at paradoxical odds to the complexities lurking beneath the smooth surface. The title track was released as the lead out single, and soon delivered Al Stewart his second U.S. top 10 hit (#7), also charting well in Australia (#36). Stewart wrote ‘Time Passages’ with his keyboardist Peter White. The song reflected Stewart’s ongoing fascination with the concept of time, and humanities perception of it. Stewart often utilised this ‘fourth’ dimension as a central theme in his work. The ‘Time Passages’ album earned Stewart his second platinum accreditation in sales - US#10/OZ#15/UK#39 - and spawned another US top 30 single with ‘Song On The Radio’ (#29) in early ‘79. For a change, Stewart didn’t have any greater lyrical ambition with ‘Song On The Radio’, than to attempt to get the song, played, on the radio. Thanks to a catchy chorus hook, he managed to do just that. It was almost two years before Stewart returned (possibly via a time passage) with the 1980 album ‘24 Carrots’. Commercially, the album was a relative disappointment (US#37/OZ#51/UK#55), though it had the explosive new wave movement to contend with. The only single from ‘24 Carrots’ to chart was ‘Midnight Rocks’, which was just too radio friendly to ignore (US#24/OZ#85). Producer Alan Parsons was no longer on the album sleeve credits, but regardless, Stewart managed to come up with a strong effort, thanks mainly to his rich writing vein still flowing freely. One of the highlights was another Stewart/White composition ‘Merlin’s Time’ - not Merlin of the Camelot variety, but rather a 6th century Scottish warrior poet. In part due to ongoing contractual problems, Al Stewart didn’t record any more studio material over the next three years, but did release a couple of live albums, including ‘Indian Summer (Live)’ (OZ#50). Stewart’s backing group, who had taken on the name A Shot In The Dark, released an album and scored a US#71 hit in 1981 with ‘Playing With Lightning’. A Shot In The Dark comprised Krysia Kristianne (vocals), Adam Yurman (guitar), Bryan Savage (sax), Peter White (keyboards), and Robin Lamble (bass). Stewart’s 1984 album ‘Russians And Americans’ (UK#83) was an overtly political album, from cover, to song titles, to lyrics. In this case the politics overwhelmed the music, and it was Stewart’s first album to miss the U.S. charts in nearly a decade. Once more Al Stewart found himself hamstrung over the next four years, as he continued to be embroiled in contractual issues. When he resurfaced again in 1988, he did so with the album ‘Last Days Of The Century’. The only track I’ve heard from the album is ‘King Of Portugal’, which I purchased on vinyl 45. It’s an engaging mid-tempo pop-rock song, that opens with a searing trumpet, and flows quite smoothly among swirling synthesizers and Spanish guitar. Once again Stewart’s lyrics are strongly engaging and evocative. ‘King Of Portugal’ didn’t ascend to the charts, nor did ‘Last Days Of The Century’, which was said to be inconsistent on the whole. The album did feature the song ‘Fields Of France’, written about World War 1 fighter pilots, possibly one of the few modern songs to address that subject - if you discount ‘Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron’. As happens with the so many great singer/songwriters, Al Stewart’s golden age appeared to have gone from future, to present, to past. 1988 also saw a return to touring for Stewart, for the first time in several years, with his 1988 acoustic tour, captured for the eventual 1992 release ‘Rhymes In Rooms’. Stewart found a new label stable at EMI for his 1993 release ‘Famous Last Words’, dedicated to the late Peter Wood who co-wrote ‘Year of the Cat’ with Stewart. Waning sales confirmed Stewart’s days of being a resident on the pop charts were behind him. Still, with less demands on his time for publicity appearances, and a reduced touring schedule, Stewart had more time to devote to his increasing passion for wine collecting. On 1995’s album ‘Between The Wars’, Stewart began his collaboration with former Wings guitarist Laurence Juber, who also took on production duties. The album was an out and out concept affair, and focused on major historical and cultural events from the end of WWI to the beginning of WWII - fingers on the buzzer, your time starts now! 1996’s ‘Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time’, received limited distribution, then Stewart returned to work with Jauber on another concept album in 2000’s ‘Down In The Cellar’. Now I’ve already given a clue earlier in this post as to what the subject matter for this album might have been - well, yeah it seems bizarre, but Al Stewart recorded a concept album about wine. Well, if you’re a dedicated wine connoisseur like Al Stewart, there’s nothing bizarre about it, and there’s much to be considered on the subject. Over the last decade Stewart has continued to tour the U.S. and Europe on occasion, and has released two more albums, ‘A Beach Full Of Shells’ (2005), and ‘Sparks Of Ancient Light’ (2008). With a career spanning more than forty years, and a swag of intelligent and engaging albums to his credit, Al Stewart’s work is sure to continue traversing time passages well beyond the next ‘Year of the Cat’.

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