OK, so tonight, Early Al Stewart. & later, Later (post-Classic-period) Al Stewart. But 4 right now:
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN, 1966-1970: The Elf, Turn into Earth, Bedsitter Images, Swiss Cottage Manoeuvres, The Carmichaels, Scandinavian Girl, Pretty Golden Hair, Denise at 16, Samuel Oh How You've Changed!, Cleave to Me, A Long Way Down from Stephanie, Ivich, Beleeka Doodle Day, Lover Man, Clifton in the Rain, In Brooklyn, Old Compton Street Blues, Ballad of Mary Foster, Life and Life Only, You Should Have Listened to Al, Love Chronicles, My Enemies Have Sweet Voices, A Small Fruit Song, Gethsemane Again, Burbling, Electric Los Angeles Sunset, Manuscript, Black Hill, Anna, Room of Roots, Zero She Flies.
I was pretty-much addicted 2 Scottish folk-rocker Al Stewart in the late '70s & in2 the early '80s, from the time I heard "Year of the Cat" on the radio & then went out & bought the enjoyable but sometimes rather cold & distant album it came from.
Then while I waited 4 more new releases, I worked my way backward: PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE had a brilliant 2nd side but I still don't think I've ever heard the 1st side all the way thru. I still think the underrated MODERN TIMES is Al's best album ever -- amazingly consistent songs & a solid-gold 2nd side.
Then came the 2-slick-4-its-own-good TIME PASSAGES, which nevertheless included a few hidden gems like the rockin'(!) "Valentina Way," the thotful "Almost Lucy" & the moody "Life in Dark Water." But some of it was just TOO COMMERCIAL!
24 CARROTS had great high points (the cloak&dagger theme "Running Man," the gorgeous folky "Rocks in the Ocean"), but a lot of it was mood music, pleasant enuf but not very deep. By the time of LIVE/INDIAN SUMMER, the romance was wearing thin.
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN repackages Al's 1st 3 albums (BEDSITTER IMAGES, LOVE CHRONICLES, ZERO SHE FLIES) + an early single. I'd heard summa this stuff on Al's 1977 2-record THE EARLY YEARS, where I thot it was mostly flat & dull & a little overwrought. & it sure as hell didn't rock much.
But 35 years later I mighta bn wrong, & I got a copy of TO WHOM cheap, so I figured whathehell. The songs I'd heard B4 at least SOUND better here.
Al reportedly disowned all this stuff years ago. Not hard 2 see why. The 31 songs here mostly break down in2 3 diffrent types -- grim & depressing drawn-out folky ballads, Donovan/Incredible String Band soundalikes, or folky acoustic-guitar instrumentals. 1 of the big selling points of EARLY YEARS was that folks like Jimmy Page, Rick Wakeman & members of Fairport Convention helped out with the trax -- it usually didn't help much.
& you think Nick Drake is depressing? You ain't heard nothin' yet. & I LIKED Al, when he was at his best.
We gotta lotta ground 2 cover here, so this is gonna B quick. Hang tight on the curves, Al fans....
The opener "The Elf" is bouncy, folky, lite & optimistic, & shoulda bn included on his earlier best-of's. Even tho it sounds most like Donovan. "Turn into Earth" is sorta pop-jazz.
BEDSITTER IMAGES: By the time of the orchestrated pop of "Bedsitter Images," Al's voice had already softened. Al's manager reportedly was able 2 convince EMI 2 use an orchestra on the album, but it doesn't help much -- the songs mostly get blown away by the over-production. You start wondering whether the orchestra or the singer is sposta B the star here. "Swiss Cottage Manoeuvres" has strings + horns.
"Swiss Cottage," "The Carmichaels" & "Scandinavian Girl" R all kinda charming songs about love affairs, OK tho not earthshaking, long as the production doesn't get 2 heavy. But the orchestra often swamps them.
"Pretty Golden Hair" is a deceptively lite-hearted song about a victim of male prostitution. The lyrics R pretty brutal. But it's done so straightforwardly & almost heavy-handedly that it can't really B taken ironically. Which makes it kinda uncomfortable -- the 1st of sevral trax 2 have that effect.
"Denise at 16" is a vaguely pretty acoustic-gtr instrumental, the 1st of sevral. "Samuel, Oh How You've Changed!" is kinda haunting -- sounds like it might B narrated by a little girl's toy, unless I'm missing something. Again, closer 2 Donovan or the Incredible String Band.
"Cleave to Me" mostly features the orchestra showing off. A minute in, Al starts singing. "Ivich" is another, more forceful acoustic-gtr instr. The tune sounds a bit like it mighta bn recycled 4 the later "Nostradamus" or "Roads to Moscow."
"Beleeka Doodle Day" -- despite its silly title -- has some of the same ominous, doomy atmosphere that can B found in some of Al's better later work. The production is thin -- just gtr, organ & drums. & tho it goes on 4 almost 7 minutes, it ain't boring.
"Lover Man," however, IS silly, & it sounds JUST LIKE Donovan, probly on purpose. This is another of those comedy songs Al did periodically thru his career, like the later "Mondo Sinistro" & "Red Toupee."
LOVE CHRONICLES: No more orchestra! "In Brooklyn" sounds a little more like later Al -- much more folk-rocky, with definite signs of life. But then there's "Old Compton Street Blues," another painful life story, despite what sounds like some rather nice Richard Thompson gtr. "Ballad of Mary Foster" is the story of another sad, empty life, & it drags on 4 almost 8 mins -- but it's actually pretty hypnotic. "Life and Life Only" is even more grim folk-rock, but also pretty hypnotic, & with more pretty-good gtr.
Coming after this grimness, "You Should Have Listened to Al" is a nice break. Tho it's about a breakup, it's lite-hearted & brief & maybe coulda gotten some radio play. "Love Chronicles" was Al's magnum opus back in '69 -- an 18-minute recap of his romantic conquests. Sounds kinda boring, but it's not -- it's involving, even funny. There's some occasional OK gtr (possibly from Jimmy Page?), + Al snuck the F-bomb in2 the lyrics & got away with it....
ZERO SHE FLIES: "My Enemies Have Sweet Voices" is kinda stark & bluesy, with lotsa harmonica. "Electric Los Angeles Sunset" almost rocks & has some nice electric gtr -- it's almost good. "Manuscript" is notable as Al's 1st journey in2 historical topics. "Zero She Flies" is a pretty good closer, with a memorable construction & some good gtr -- it might B the best thing here. It's also the closest 2 "pop."
ZERO's songs R more forceful, less depressing -- Al's getting better. But the problem is, there's only 5 real songs here. The rest R all brief song fragments or acoustic-gtr instrumentals. "Burbling," "Black Hill," "Anna" & "Room of Roots" all have some striking gtr work -- but it's like Al didn't have enuf material 2 fill an entire album.
Overall, a decent minor talent, based on the evidence on display here.
COMING SOON: What Al's bn doing since the early 1980s....