Right, that’s one of my actual grade school spelling tests from when I was already a staggering 10 years of age. Troubling indeed. I also misheard my 7th grade Health teacher use the word “hores” instead of “pores” and naively, innocently and absolutely wrote an essay about skin that was basically full of whores (that I wish I still had). I’m trying to do better I swear…though if I ever form a band we are definitely gonna be called The Wendsday Whores.
But hey, it’s time for the latest WEEKLY NEW WONDERS PLAYLIST featuring the best new songs that have crossed our path over recent days. This weeks batch is simultaneously ethereal, dirty and windblown and righteously beautiful in every way. Listen below on Soundcloud or Spotify.
Matthew Restall, author of the brilliant Blue Moves book in the 33 1/3 series & I (Hope) have a running list of artists whose respective catalogues we want to break down (figuratively) because our commitment to nerdiness is boundless. Welcome to the latest installment of this madness, This Is My Investigation where we will attempt to rumble through and rate the discography of dad rock kingpins Dire Straits. Wheels on…
The Game Commences: Just a note on the format of this essay, Matthew and I are going to be taking turns offering up our Dire assessments and our names will appear before our respective comments. Our album rating system is the classic best of 10, the pinnacle being 10 (it’s brilliant ), the bottom being 1 (it’s terrible). Our opinions will diverge at points from both each other and maybe the world at large but we are united in appreciation of the behemoth known as Dire Straits.
Here’s Mark Knopfler shredding, just because…
MATTHEW: With a catalogue of only six studio albums—and not a single one of them bad—Dire Straits may seem like an easy band to chat about and rate (hey, we just wrote 16k words rating the entire Macca catalog so we deserve a break! Read that here). And maybe that would be the case, were our opinions matched by those of most record-buyers and music critics—who helped make one of those six records, Brothers in Arms, responsible for a third of the band’s 100 million worldwide album sales. But they don’t. So there.
HOPE: I have a weird relationship with Dire Straits. They aren’t one of my all-time favorite bands…but I do genuinely like them. Okay true confession; I am not a guitar aficionado. Not an axe girl. Which is to say that while I’m appreciative of great playin’, elongated solos generally aren’t my thing. Fact is Mark Knopfler’s virtuosic skills have never been the most appealing thing about Dire Straits for me nor the magnetic force that made me want to listen; it’s always just been the songs themselves. I like their cinematic moodiness and how the average running time of a typical track is a fulsome 5 minutes allowing for complete headphone immersion. Put simply, I like how you can get lost in them. That’s what I like about Dire Straits.
Dire Straits (1978)
MATTHEW:Dire Straits (1978, UK #5, US #2, Top Ten in nine nations, #1 in two of them, sold 10m): 8/10. Deceptively simple and solid, this stunning debut is crafted to be so timeless that at the peak of the punk-vs-disco era, it simply sounded right, and still sounds right today. There isn’t a duff track on it, and arguably not even a duff note. Side B—“Sultans of Swing” to “Lions”—is an amazing 22 minutes, brimming with restrained energy. It was cued as Side A on most cassette editions, including the one I flogged into submission the year it was released. I was then 14 years old, torn between The Sex Pistols and ABBA (how was it possible to love both? Was something wrong with me?!), and therefore relieved and grateful for an album that offered refuge from the “cool” minefield. Neither too edgy nor too poppy, but still hip and tuneful, Dire Straits was safe but not dull. It only gets 8/10 from here because in retrospect, and compared to what followed, its safeness seems relatively…well, safe. The potential of all its influences and elements is incipient here, yet to be explored and developed—from the elements I love, such as prog-rock long-form rock jams and moody blues-based ballads, to those I don’t (but others do), such as rockabilly and country.
HOPE:Dire Straits (1978): 4/10. Bluesy, dusty and endlessly twanging Dire Straits is built to soundtrack both lengthy journeys across desert highways or slow walks through either saloon or pub doors. But okay, I find this album a bit samey (Hey Matthew, is that the same as “dull”?). On the upside,“Wild West End” possesses an appealingly horny charm, its laid back ogling offering a more romantic spin on the sentiments expressed in Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane’s more sinister observational anthem from the previous year “Street In The City”(listen here). And “Lions” has the sweetly appealing gait of a Thin Lizzy deep cut. But of course the undeniable star of the album is “Sultans of Swing”, the band’s signature song and eternal sonic specter (literally, as its infectious guitar figure haunts a solid handful of other DS songs in the discography)…still, as cool as those 3 tracks are, I just, can’t, quite, latch, onto the rest.
MATTHEW:Communiqué (1979, UK #5, US #11, Top Ten in eight nations, #1 in two of them, sold 7m): 9/10. Along with millions of others on both sides of the Atlantic, I was primed by my love of the first album to either be disappointed by the sequel (ooh, just not as good?) or thrilled by it (another great album so soon?). For me, it was the latter: I thought this was a brilliant sophomore album, and from the very start I loved it even more than the first; I still do. Without a “Sultans of Swing” to overshadow the album, it struck me as having more balance, a sibling to the first album, for sure, yet hinting ever so slightly at a musical development that—little did I know in ‘79—would be fully realized in the two albums to follow. Recorded in Muscle Shoals, as the last album before Mark’s brother David quit (he left during recording sessions for the next one), the album has a warmth of tone unique to the band’s catalogue. In retrospect, the tendency to rank this at the bottom of the catalogue is mystifying; some critics seemed to see the lack of a hit single (“Lady Writer” failed to repeat the success of “Sultan”) and the album’s release on the heels of the debut as signs that this was a second-rate rush-job.
Listening to the two albums now, I see zero drop in quality. In fact, the more I listen to them together, the more convinced I am that Communiqué is the better of the two, an evolutionary step forward in song-writing. I see why you find some of the debut album boring, Hope (even if it doesn’t bore me), but I think there’s nothing nondescript in this one. There’s a tension here both in the story-telling (Knopfler is a troubadour at heart) and in the guitar-picking laid-back groove that runs from the opening lick of “Once Upon a Time in the West” to the blissfully soporific lilt of “Follow Me Home.” And in the middle, the menacing masterpiece that is “Where Do You Think You’re Going?” Unlike you, Hope, I adore a ridiculously long guitar jam, and I wish the minute-long solo that ends this song was more like ten minutes (even if the change in tempo disturbingly suggests that the narrator has gone from threatening to actually chasing; oh yes, this is narrative pop-rock at its best!).
HOPE:Communiqué (1979): 4/10. These early albums feel like a journey to get to the next place, developmental in a sense. The western film theme/pub sound is still fairly dominant here which is to say my favorite track is the (slightly) weirdest one, closer “Follow Me Home” (crickets, lapping waves, sinewy, subtle and dark, yeah, I’ll have that). And “ Where Do You Think You’re Going?” possesses a pretty nifty riff and a nice snarling vocal from Knopfler…but both this and the self-titled album are just not sticky enough for me, not melodically memorable and are ultimately a little too meandering to inspire endless listening. There are a few genuinely good tracks on each but to my ears they both wither in the wake of what came after. P.S. My inner musical conspiracy theorist believes that Gordon “Sting” Sumner brazenly pilfered the guitar figure from “News” for “Fragile”.
Making Movies (1980)
MATTHEW:Making Movies (1980, UK #4, US #19, Top Ten in six nations, sold 7m): 8/10. I adored this when it came out, and I have often returned to it for the same reason: it is a bigger, brighter, more melodic version of the formula from the first two albums. The addition of keyboardist Roy Bittan (from the E Street Band) feels like a natural step forward, and is it my imagination that there is a hint of Springsteen/E Street on here? On a different day, I might rate Making Movies a 9. Today, it’s an 8/10 because I’m bothered by something that has periodically nagged at me for forty years: isn’t this a concept album about lost love, five great songs over 30 minutes, but with two misfit tracks at the end to bring it to 38”? It’s infuriating because that first half-hour is sublime, an evolution of that troubadour style into poignancy and beauty. Stick to the first five tracks, all classics, and skip the last two clunkers.
HOPE:Making Movies (1980): 9/10. Unlike the previous 2 albums, there are no songs on Making Movies that would work to soundtrack a Western duel. No, this album is fueled by more modern day machinations…in other words, meet the new Dire Straits featuring less twanging and more grooving. The album is a perfect intermingling of wistfulness and desire ( and okay, a handful of horniness) and so yes, it could rightfully be characterized as Springsteen-esque. My first interaction with this album came not via beloved evergreen epic “Romeo and Juliet” but with the now iconic video for “Skateaway” starring the late Jayzik Azikiwe as Rollergirl (watch below). Not only did I think she was simultaneously one of the coolest and hottest humans I’d ever seen, I found the song itself intoxicating and appealingly weird, unpredictable and groovy. It also features one of my absolute favorite Knopfler scenery chewing talk-singing vocal performances. But to be clear the 4 songs that surround it are equally sweet ( need to call out that coda in “Romeo and Juliet” with its “you and me babe how about it?” because yes, it just plain rules). The last 2 tracks “Solid Rock” and “Les Boys” are straight up sub b-side scraps and so, in my heart, Making Movies will always be a handsome, top down 5 song EP.
Love Over Gold (1982)
HOPE:Love Over Gold (1982, UK #1, US #19, Top Ten in eight nations, #1 in five of them, sold 8m): 7/10. Why do I sort of love Love Over Gold ? Allow me to oversimplify and generalize : 1-It sounds good in the rain, 2- There are only 5 songs, each of which are 5 minutes plus making it ideal for complete aural immersion, 3- As such the whole thing feels very cinematic, epic and widescreen making it a fine soundtrack for lengthy daydreaming sessions. “Telegraph Road” is both fist-pumpingly melodic and tear-jerking poignant…and for a song that is the musical equivalent of War and Peace in terms of length (14 plus minutes), it still feels like it’s over in a heartbeat. Oh “Private Investigations”, I think you are very beautiful, standing under that streetlight, all monumental and majestic, full of resignation and sadness. But hey, hey, not ignoring you “Love Over Gold”, you are also ravishing and lovely especially your literally 3 minute rainswept instrumental outro/coda. Sidenote; to this day I still get a kick out of hearing the seeds of “Private Dancer” the future megahit Knopfler wrote and gifted to Tina Turner in the song’s chorus.
Why do I only sort of love Love Over Gold i.e. not full on?…well there are 2 tracks I’m not nuts about namely the album closer “It Never Rains”, a just okay, kinda perky sub-standard Springsteen-style song and, ugh, “Industrial Disease”. I’ve tried to rationalize its inclusion by reminding myself that The Police did this kind of thing on all 5 of their otherwise immaculate studio albums, namely including at least one genuinely cringey “comedic” song amongst the stellar ones. The half full mentality says the cringers ultimately make the better songs shine even more brightly…but when an album is only 5 songs in length and 2 of them are not great, their presence becomes painfully magnified. This is why my love for Love Over Gold will always have a heart-shaped asterisk next to it.
MATTHEW:Love Over Gold (1982): 9/10. Why do I unabashedly love Love Over Gold? Sometimes one is lucky enough to experience love at first listen; and that’s how it was with this record. I can still remember the first time I heard “Private Investigations”: I was listening to BBC Radio 1 in my mother’s MG, flying between the hedgerows along a tiny country road, and Tony Blackburn played the song twice in a row, because it was that good, and he didn’t care that his program manager was yelling at it him; then he said, if you like this song, you’re going to love the other track on Side A, its over twice as long! Old Tony was right. That’s the epic “Telegraph Road,” of course, and I’ve not stopped playing their combined 21” (Side A on the record) for almost four decades. The whole record is masterful.
Well, except perhaps for Side B’s “Industrial Disease,” which hinted too strongly (for my tastes) at the retro-rockabilly virus that would infect the later albums. At first, I skipped it, to go straight to the bliss of the title track and “It Never Rains.” But then I caught one of the final concerts of the Love Over Gold tour—in London in the summer of 1983—and “Industrial Disease” was great played live (as you can hear on Alchemy; see below). That helped me to see how the song serves a useful purpose, as a sort of lightweight relief in the middle of the wonderful but arguably earnest prog-rock pretentions of the two tracks before and two tracks after. That said, I’ve never completely embraced its inclusion on the album. As you note, Hope, there are echoes of “Private Dancer” in this album’s title track, making rather confounding Knopfler’s rationale for giving to Tina Turner what would become the title track to her comeback album. Wouldn’t the song have been a great way to start Side B of Love Over Gold, instead of “Disease”?!
Brothers In Arms (1985)
MATTHEW:Brothers in Arms (1985, UK #1, US #1, #1 in ten nations, sold 31m): 6/10. At 30 million units sold, and one of the ten best-selling albums of all time in the UK, this is their biggest record by far, typically cited as their best. But while it has some great tracks—like the beautiful title song—it is marred by intolerably artless and irritating tripe like “Walk of Life,” which turned me off the band for so long they’d broken up by the time I forgave them. Apparently, the producer wanted to toss “WoL” in the B-sides bin, but he was overruled by the band; if he’d had his way, he wouldn’t have been forced to edit down every track on Side A except “WoL” for the vinyl version, which only added insult to injury. The offending single is preceded by “Money For Nothing,” which is a classic example of an overexposed song: it is a brilliant rock/pop single, I understand why it remains so popular, and I don’t skip it when I’m playing the album; but I would be fine with never hearing it again.
“WoL” is then followed by “Your Latest Trick,” the fifth (!) successful single from the album, and a wonderful example of that soft rock style that would characterize Mark Knopfler’s solo records (and indeed the B-sides were both Knopfler solo recordings). I love the trumpet and sax licks by the Brecker brothers. And that is the thing with Brothers: it lurches between the annoying and the sublime, the overexposed and the timeless. Instead of a further step towards prog-ish, blues-rock theatricality, this was a step sideways from the theatre to the arena. I realize that this is a treasured artifact from the childhood or youth of millions, but for me this was always less compelling and coherent than any of its four predecessors, all of which I always preferred.
HOPE:Brothers in Arms (1985): 5/10. Goodbye adventurous idiosyncratic weirdness, hello expensive stadium-ready sleekness. It’s disappointing that Brothers, an album nowhere near as good as its 2 predecessors and the most sonically polite and plush release in the entire Dire Straits discography is the album that has come to define the band. I wholeheartedly agree with your 3 points Matthew; the title track is lovely, “Walk Of Life” is literally tripe and “Money For Nothing” has absolutely worn out its welcome. As for the rest, “Your Latest Trick” with its “sexy sax”, the swaying palms of “Why Worry”, the faux Peter Gabriel vibe of “Ride Across The River”, the positively Clapton-ish (ugh) “So Far Away” are not a patch on painterly, riveting tracks like “Private Investigations” or “Skateaway” or “Love Over Gold”. Lastly we need to address the elephant in the room, namely the legendary Knopfler headband, immortalized in glowing neon glory in the “Money For Nothing” video and whose ascent as key cultural artifact peaked right about here. Along with the Mercury and Oates mustaches, MJ glove, ZZ Top keyring and Madonna’s giant crucifix necklace, it is unquestionably one of the ‘80s most iconic pop accoutrements, in other words, #knopflersheadband.
On Every Street (1991)
MATTHEW:On Every Street (1991, UK #1, US #12, Top Ten in nine nations, #1 in eight of them, sold 9m): 6/10. The success of Brothers in Arms kept the band touring so heavily that it essentially broke them up (they were officially “inactive” or disbanded, depending on what you read, from 1988 to 1991). This therefore sounds more like a Mark Knopfler solo album for that reason; sadly, that means none of the prog-ish ambition of the early 80s, but more of the country incipient on the late 70s ones, with a touch of the retro-rockabilly that infected the 1982-85 material. Still, aside from two of its five singles—“Heavy Fuel” & “The Bug”—being as annoying as the two big hits on Brothers, this is a fine swan song, intricately crafted and played; I completely ignored it at the time, not bothering to give it a chance for over a decade, but I’m glad now that the band had one last go of it (I love “Planet of New Orleans,” for example).
HOPE:On Every Street (1991): 3/10.There’s an old scrapbook of memories vibe to this album; it sounds like a sentimental tribute to younger days. I like the bones of the title track (tune, words) but the woodwind infusion feels intrusive and the overall orchestral feel brings to mind trawling grassy mountain tops with a walking stick as opposed to roaming the lonely city which to my ears always feels at odds with the lyrical sentiment. The retro-rockabilly tracks, the self-consciously noirish blues of “Fade To Black” as well as the Eddie Cochran/Roy Orbison flavored throwback “Ticket To Heaven” are also lacking that intrinsic mystical something for me. In conclusion On Every Street is pleasant and tasteful and features the usual virtuosic musicianship…but it’s missing all the epic weird, romantic storytelling and dirtiness that made the first 4 Dire Straits albums if not all equally awesome, compelling and listenable.
MATTHEW: Some readers will have called me a crazy fool for ranking Communiqué over Dire Straits, and others will throw their arms up at my ranking On Every Street even with Brothers in Arms. But as I go back and forth between the two, I cannot escape the conclusion that the latter two really are very close to being as good as each other—and, incidentally, very close in quality to Mark Knopfler’s best solo album (that is not a film soundtrack), 2000’s Sailing to Philadelphia.
HOPE: You know what I’ve always kind of wished, that more women artists would cover Dire Straits songs. I love the idea of turning certain tracks sideways and yeah, just think it would sound so damn cool. While there’s been some “Romeo And Juliet” action ( most notably by Indigo Girls, listen here) there hasn’t been much coverage in relation to the deep stuff. Would love to hear a little “Private Investigations” for one…go on girl(s).
MATTHEW: Yes! Brilliant idea! (But not including Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer.”)
Live Albums, Compilations and Side Projects
MATTHEW: There are also three live albums worth considering. Here they are, in order of their release, which also happens to be how I rank them, from must-own to don’t-bother. Alchemy, 9/10, (1983 concerts, 1984 album, UK #3, US #43, Top Ten in eight nations, #1 in one of them) is one of the best live albums of all time, with a stunning 10-minute version of “Sultans.” This would be the album to take to the Desert Island if only one from the band were allowed. Drawing heavily on Making Movies and Love Over Gold, Alchemy comes close to rendering both redundant. The CD version (remastered in 2001) is preferable to the LP one, because it includes “Love Over Gold” and none of the edits and fades necessitated by vinyl. I give it 9 instead of 10/10 because I always thought the use of “Going Home”—the Knopfler solo hit from the Local Hero movie soundtrack—was an odd way to end the album; and, when it was reissued, why not include from the outtake bin the full “Portobello Belle,” an edit of which appeared on the 1988 Money For Nothing hits compilation?
Ok, maybe I’m nit-picking. And maybe I’m over-compensating for my personal connection to these live versions, because I was almost at the Hammersmith Odeon concerts where they were recorded. Instead, I saw them at the Dominion (also an old London theatre) a couple of nights earlier. Half the audience left after the encore (including my girlfriend), but then the band came back out with Phil Lynott (of Thin Lizzy) and played an amazing half-hour second encore. (My memory of some details may be fuzzy; if you were at the London gig where Lynott joined Dire Straits—not the legendary Rainbow Theatre one in ‘79, but this Love Over Gold one—let us know!)
On the Night, 7/20 (1992 concert, 1993 album, UK #4, US #116, Top Ten in eight nations, #1 in two of them), on the other hand, is somewhat pointless, because Alchemy is better, and this begins by showcasing three weak songs that were late-period hit singles (unfortunately, in my view, but fortunate for Knopfler’s bank balance)—“Calling Elvis,” “Walk of Life,” & “Heavy Fuel.” That said, the 10-minute version of “Elvis” is far superior to the studio version, and the rest of the album is pretty awesome. In all their incarnations, Dire Straits were a superb live act, and so it is great to have these concert versions of late-period classics like “Brothers in Arms” and “On Every Street” (which obviously weren’t yet written when Alchemy was made).
The third concert album, Live at the BBC, 5/10, (1978 concert, 1995 release, UK #71, did not chart US), strikes me as being for fanatics only (and I’m clearly not fanatic enough). It comprises decent live versions of six tracks from the debut album, but not to the standards of Alchemy; one so-so song written by both Knopfler brothers that was never studio recorded because it evolved into the far better “Lady Writer”; and an early version of “Tunnel of Love” (played live in Germany in 1980, despite the album’s title, so an odd misfit).
There’s also a 1996 live set, but it was only released as part of a 1998 “best of” compilation, so see our paragraphs on comps albums below.
HOPE:Alchemy, 7/10, (1983 concerts, 1984 album). Back in ‘83/84 I was eagerly attending exactly the sort of shows you might expect a teenage girl to see. Duran Duran. Culture Club. Psychedelic Furs. As you can probably imagine the crowds at these events were as hyped up as living breathing humans could possibly be, totally high on pop music and lust and screaming their freakin’ heads off. In the context of things, that behavior made total sense, the whole experience felt sugary, hot and exotic. Which is why when I first heard Alchemy I was a little taken aback at how expressive and vocal the audience was. The whistling, the hooting, the clapping. I was fascinated that people could get as worked up over a Knopfler guitar solo as I would get watching Simon LeBon “dance” or Richard Butler “twirl”.I was mystified that they could love something that didn’t involve “pin-up-ability” so intensely ( I clearly had some growing up to do). But to this day, that’s what charms me most about this album, I mean just listen to how completely invested and loved up the crowd is during “Telegraph Road”; it’s really kind of beautiful. I adore this version of “Romeo And Juliet” (the instrumental coda is particularly swoon-worthy)…and especially dig how it segues into “Love Over Gold” which then leads on into “Private Investigations”. The 3 greatest Dire Straits songs played consecutively and the unabashed, spoken out loud love on display ?…yeah, I’ll take it.
As far as On the Night, 4/10 (1992 concert, 1993 album) goes, it seems like a completely superfluous release. It’s nowhere near as embraceable as Alchemy and the damage inflicted on “Romeo And Juliet” by my personal nemesis, the aforementioned dreaded “sexy sax” is absolutely criminal. On the whole, things are just a bit too slick, shiny and stadium and I would definitely categorize it for fans only…as I would Live at the BBC, 3/10, (1978 concert, 1995 release), an archival curio which as Matthew says is “decent” but not remotely compelling.
MATTHEW: Finally, what of the compilation and hits albums, and Mark Knopfler’s solo output? There are three compilations, the first of which, Money for Nothing (1988) is worthless save for one track: half its tracks are edited down, with the full-length originals all superior; only the live version of “Portobello Belle,” left off all versions of Alchemy, is worth accessing here—for hard-core fans. The compilation was replaced in 1998 by Sultans of Swing: The Very Best of Dire Straits, which made the same error, with 6 of its 16 tracks edited down. Half of its tracks are from the last two solo albums, mostly the singles that—in my view—aren’t the best songs on those albums. So, again, worthless. But (a big but), there were deluxe editions in ‘98—with a second CD, containing 7 tracks from a 1996 Royal Albert Hall concert—and in 2002, when a DVD was added to that second CD. The live set cannot match Alchemy, and is similar to On the Night, so it’s not bad and certainly not worthless—but really of interest to serious fans only.
The third and so far latest compilation is Private Investigations: The Best of Dire Straits and Mark Knopfler (2005). The addition of solo numbers is interesting, but beware of the single CD and vinyl versions; yet again, these contain some edited versions, and are thus also worthless. To make room for solo songs (four on the single CD version), the first two Dire Straits albums are ignored beyond “Sultans.” The 2-CD version is better, although it likewise ignores the first two albums, and includes the inferior edit of “Private Investigations”—sadly ironic, considering the album’s title. It offers 9 solo tracks, and they are a reasonable introduction to Knopfler’s 22 albums outside Dire Straits—that’s nine solo albums, from 1996 to 2018 (so far), nine film soundtrack albums, from 1983 to 2016 (again, so far), and four collaborative albums (two in 1990 and two in 2006—a studio and a live album with Emmylou Harris). Note that roughly a third of all those were made before Dire Straits dissolved, with most of that early work being soundtracks. There isn’t therefore a clean break between Knopfler’s Dire Straits, solo, and soundtrack work (his best soundtracks are arguably the 80s ones, during peak Straits years); nor is there one in terms of styles. We haven’t rated the non-Straits albums, as they are a different species. But there is DNA overlap. As a generalization, the solo albums are singer-songwriter records in the related genres of country and British/Irish folk music. The best of them—for me, that’s Sailing to Philadelphia (2000) and The Ragpicker’s Dream (2002)—come closest to Straits albums at times, but never that close. And when they do, they sound more like the late-period Straits songs that anticipate Knopfler’s solo work. I think that’s called Dirony. (Sorry!)
If there must be a “best of” compilation, I’d prefer it be 3 CDs, the first all Straits, the third all solo work, with the middle CD mixing the two with some of the songs that overlap in style—-like “Fade to Black” from the final Straits album, and solo gems like “What It Is” from Sailing to Philadelphia, and “Terminal of Tribute To” from Tracker (2015). I’d want on that third CD the Sailing title track, plus “Hard Shoulder” from Get Lucky (2009), and “A Place Where We Used to Live” from The Ragpicker’s Dream (2002). Heck, how about a 4th CD of live tracks, and a 5th of soundtrack pieces. But such a 3-CD (or 4 or 5!) compilation doesn’t exist, so you might as well buy the no-frills Dire Straits Studio Albums box set, a $30 bargain, put on your red head band, and start drinking Portobello Road gin (yes, it’s Knopfler’s brand, complete with a mini red headband on the neck); after a few Local Hero G&Ts, you may see the virtue in also buying Alchemy and a handful of Knoppy’s solo and soundtrack albums. Now that—to cite a track from his Princess Bride soundtrack—is “A Happy Ending.”
HOPE: I concur with Matthew’s points in regards to the compilations! Dire Straits were never a singles band and are just so ill-suited to that type of overview (square peg meet round hole). The ideal way to experience a Dire Straits song is within its natural habitat surrounded by its actual herd via the actual studio albums (with Alchemy serving as the mike drop at the end).
As far as the Knopfler solo stuff, it’s a true mixed bag and admittedly I’ve never latched onto any of the albums as a whole…but there are a couple of tracks within them I find particularly exquisite: The infectious and sticky portraiture of “The Scaffolder’s Wife” from the Kill To Get Crimson album (2007) and the aforementioned and beauteous “Hard Shoulder” which sounds like both an earthbound spin on “Wichita Lineman” and a tribute to old chestnut “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying” at the same damn time.
Album Ranking Summary
MATTHEW: 9/10: Communiqué, Love Over Gold, Alchemy 8/10: Dire Straits, Making Movies 7/10: On the Night 6/10: Brothers in Arms, On Every Street 5/10: Live at the BBC
HOPE: 9/10: Making Movies 7/10: Love Over Gold, Alchemy 5/10: Brothers in Arms 4/10: Dire Straits, Communiqué, On The Night 3/10: On Every Street, Live at the BBC
And what have you got at the end of the day? What have you got to take away?
HOPE: When Matthew first suggested we explore Dire Straits I was worried that I didn’t feel strongly enough about them to be able to appraise them fairly or accurately. But of course that crazy (inevitable) thing happened where the more I listened, the more things started to resonate, the more invested I became in the experience. And here I am digging Alchemy in a way I never have before in my life. And playing “Hard Shoulder” and imagining I’m in a ‘60s movie on a greyhound bus watching the rain beat against the window. And so there you go, you got me Mr.Knopfler, mission accomplished.
MATTHEW: Yeah, Knoppy got me too! I thought my opinions were fairly set, especially as my views on music from my teens and college-age years (1977-86) are so infused with emotional and personal associations. But in the course of our deep-diving, I have discovered anew the narrative richness of the Dire Straits and Knopfler catalogs; I’ve heard musical moments I’d missed or forgotten; and I’ve come to better appreciate both Knopfler’s genius as a guitarist and songwriter, and the talents of his band mates. If our conversation leads you to anything remotely close to that, then OUR mission is accomplished! Now where’s that bottle…
Back in the ’90s, like many nerds, I spent an exorbitant amount of time making mix cds. Once the 21st Century arrived and the glorious iPod was introduced into the universe, my indulgent compilation factory pretty much ceased operation ( unless of course there was someone new to “impress”). Now part of the fun of creating these oh so painstakingly curated little monsters was getting to create a spectacular cover to represent their contents. Something iconic like say Sticky Fingers or Sgt.Pepper. An unforgettable image that perfectly captured all the emotion and the intensity of feeling within the disc. I recently came upon this little diamond (circa 199?) which, I don’t know, lands somewhere between Van Gogh and Andrew Wyeth maybe? While the cd itself leads off with New Order’s bouncy “Regret”, it closes with David Sylvian’s handsome, funereal pop dirge from 1987, “Let The Happiness In”, which after careful lyrical analysis appears to be the inspirational source of the sad, sloppy, sharpie cover art. Here’s an actual verse from the song:
I‘m waiting on the empty docks Watching the ships come in I’m waiting for the agony to stop Oh, let the happiness in
I know. It just got dark in here. But I swear it really is a beautiful song. My messy depiction of “sad” in no way represents its genuine majesty. But hey, I tried.
Right enough of that, it’s time for the latest WEEKLY NEW WONDERS PLAYLIST featuring the finest new songs that have crossed our path over recent days. They are the height of loveliness and currently topping the charts over on Earth 2. You can listen on Soundcloud or Spotify below. Let the happiness in…
That is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. It is the world’s largest seed storage facility and was built to withstand nearly any type of global disaster. It contains duplicates of all the world’s seeds in case food production needs to be restarted if the supply is in peril. It is in a state of permafrost so even if all the power goes down, the seeds stay fresh. Crates of seeds are sent to Svalbard from all over the world to be stowed safely and securely in cold, dry vaults. Right, I am inexplicably fascinated with this place, both the building and the premise behind it. I have actually fantasized about what it would be like to work there which is incredibly weird and frankly I don’t understand either. And yes, I have used pictures of this thing as wallpaper. No sunsets or mountains for me, nope, give me a Norwegian seed storage facility built for doomsday scenarios any day. And so yeah, you can research after you read this and join my one person SGSV fan club where all we do is read about and look at pictures of it, as well as watch video tours, for reasons we can’t quite pinpoint.
Hey! It’s time for the latest WEEKLY NEW WONDERS PLAYLIST featuring the finest new songs we’ve heard over recent days. They are beautiful starlit anthems to the last and all are currently tied for #1 on the PuR top of the pop chart. You can hear ’em below on Soundcloud or Spotify. I also attached a link for the new Julien Baker album Little Oblivions, which is equal parts intense, rockin’ and tuneful and just plain good.
Welcome to PuR’s Love Crypt, spotlighting the underrated, secretly classic songs & albums that didn’t always get the attention they deserved upon release but are worthy of adoration & a listen. We are digging deep, really deep in this edition to shine a light a couple of forgotten yet wondrous, old diamonds…
Nick Barone: Blues In The City (1987)
As far as I can tell based a bit of research, this is the only music Nick Barone ever officially released. All I know about him is literally this song which I heard by total chance just because I walked into the Vinyl Mania shop back in the day and it happened to be playing. The song features a lyrical reference to California but make no mistake “Blues In the City” sounds like New York City in the ’80s. It’s a sleek hypnotic, electronic groove with a bit of a post punk vibe and some warm guitar stabs thrown in along the way. The overall sound conjures images of cavernous, dusty nightclubs and perilous nighttime walks by the river which is to say, it’s got some chilly city soul running through its veins. Nothing genuinely dramatic happens, the chorus doesn’t overwhelm and it has kind of a demo-ish quality…yet there is something oddly unforgettable about it. It’s one of those ’80s songs I could just plain never get out of my head. Chris Lord-Alge who has worked with everyone from James Brown to Madonna is listed as one of the mix engineers on the sleeve but there is nothing highbrow or expensive about this song, it’s just cool and lost and kind of beautiful.
Eric Eden: I’d Make You Happy (If I Could) (1992)
Eric Eden’s “I’d Make You Happy ( If I Could)” is over the top dramatic-romantic and sits somewhere between vintage Todd Rundgren and a Queen piano ballad. It is one gloriously plush, angsty, string-soaked 5 minutes and home to some pretty swoon-worthy melodic twists. There is some serious pedigree on this track as well in the form of Elton John’s longtime percussionist Ray Cooper and Bowie guitarist Carlos Alomar (!) who also feature prominently on Eden’s entire debut album Grooving Up Slowly where “I’d Make You Happy…” is pulled from. Speaking of which gonna offer up a bonus track in this edition of the Love Crypt from the same album; rainswept Prince-flavored candy “Don’t Cry Out In Tears From The Sky” is even more over the top than “I’d Make You Happy…” and just as sweet. Check it out below.
During the sweet days of summer of 2010, for 2 whole months, I was obsessed the music of ’70s soft rock troubadours Seals & Crofts. 10+ years later and I’m still trying to make sense of it. The jasmine’s in bloom….
For someone who endlessly whinges about how much she hates the term “Guilty Pleasure”, I admit I still feel a tiny challenge when it comes to celebrating the thing I’m about to explain. Come to think of it, “celebrating” might not be the right word, what I mean is it’s hard trying to relate why I liked it, or why I got quite so into it for what turned out to be a pretty short span of time. To be honest I have only the vaguest idea. I think it relates to the general concept of both “childhood” and “better days” and the kind of fantastically remembered notions you have about the past once you get a little distance. But shit, I also just like some ridiculous old pop music.
Right so in the summer of 2010 I became inexplicably fixated on the music of Jim Seals & Dash Crofts aka Seals & Crofts, the ’70s soft rock duo who dominated the AM radio airwaves throughout that decade. They’d been huge back in the day, scoring a handful of truly infectious hits including “Diamond Girl”, “Get Closer”, “We May Never Pass This Way Again” and laid back behemoth “Summer Breeze” (which made putting plates on the dinner table seem like the most romantic thing in all of humanity). Like most people of my generation (X), I was pretty familiar with the aforementioned hits but admit that was solely down to old school osmosis…meaning that every car journey of my childhood was tuned into and soundtracked by sugary sweet AM radio. Thus the malleable little kid brains of my brother and I were exposed to this sweet but sinister musical asbestos on a daily basis as it reverberated through our insanely cliched succession of ’70s family vehicles: the requisite station wagon (kids pinballing in the back), a blue Econoline van (kids pinballing in the back even more violently) and most importantly, our Mom’s white Chevy Nova which had a huge sunflower painted on the side, as commissioned by my hippie Mom, often resulting in my grade school classmates letting me know that “I saw your Mom’s car today” which though I love now, I found unspeakably humiliating at the time.
Sorry got off track there but that was some f-ing car. Now to be clear, I genuinely enjoyed some of the songs I was exposed on those car rides. Not usually enough to sacrifice allowance money on, but enough so that I might possibly sing along to them under my breath as they wafted through the Nova, like for example the Captain & Tennille’s “The Way That I Want To Touch You” (hell yeah) or the Eagles “One Of These Nights” (ni-hi-hi-hi-ights)…but as open as I was to a good hook, Seals & Crofts aka S & C, never quite managed to capture my attention. Not only was I not moved by the songs ( the lowest common denominator), they also didn’t meet my crucial, non-negotiable young girl in the heat of pop music infatuation standards i.e. they didn’t rock and they weren’t young and cute.
Seals & Crofts 3 biggest hits all peaked at the # 6 position in the Billboard Pop Chart. 666. Just sayin’.
Yet there I was in our year of 2010 eagerly rooting through their entire recorded catalogue on iTunes like a freakin’ Smithsonian archivist, painstakingly cherry picking songs that sounded cool and stuffing them into a playlist. And like a kid who prefers the packing peanuts to the actual gift in the box, I found myself way more interested in exploring the deep cuts I’d never heard than the familiar hits. Once assembled, I proceeded to listen to this approximately 10-12 song “Ultimate Seals & Crofts Playlist” every day. On the daily train ride to work. While riding loops around Central Park. As I was washing the damn dishes. For all of July and August. It was like a ’70s AM radio themed version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers wherein some soft focus, earth shoe wearing, incense cone burning, hang-gliding, Chevy van driving, ambiguously spiritual, herbal essence shampooing, Tab drinking muthaf*cking ghost had moved into my person and taken control. What triggered this ? The hot July days ? Memories of catching fireflies in the backyard as a kid ? What the holy hell was happening ?
Look, we can’t talk here, meet me in the next paragraph…
I need to get factual for a minute but I swear I’ll be brief. That up there⬆️ is the inner sleeve of S & C’s 1974 album Unborn Child featuring the lyrics of the title track. They were written by Lana Bogan, wife of the duo’s recording engineer Joseph Bogan and then set to music by S & C. The song was actually released as a single but due to the controversial nature of its subject matter many radio stations refused to play it (especially as it came in the wake of the Roe v.Wade decision in 1973). And so it only got as high as #66 on the Billboard pop chart ( wait, 66). Still S & C were popular and “hot” enough at that point that the album itself landed in the Top 20 and ultimately went Gold.
Okay so I have a confession to make. About a year before my official S & C infatuation began, I had actually purchased an LP of theirs…it was, yup you guessed it, the infamous, aforementioned Unborn Child. It cost $1 and I bought it along with a pile of other cheap records from one of those NYC street vendor guys who sell old albums out of crates on the sidewalk. My first reaction upon seeing the album title and perusing the lyrics of the song it had been named for on the inner sleeve, was a hearty “what the f*ck“. To be honest, knowing how popular S & C were at the time of Unborn Child’s release, it kind of pissed me off. It seemed downright insidious, packaging this particular sentiment on an album released at the peak of their fame, knowing those who’d been seduced and won over by the sweet hits the previous year would just buy it based on history. Anyway, it didn’t matter that it was already 35 years old, I just couldn’t let it slide. And so I bought it as a curio, a historical object, a weird ’70s artifact to be incredulous about with music nerd friends. I bought it because because it made me (gently) angry. I know that seems weird and counterintuitive as f*ck but there you go. I’d like to think we’ve all done things like that ( uh, right ?), like bought an elderly book with debunked ideas or a piece of hilariously misshapen fruit just to have, to be amused or astounded by, or to make your friends laugh or whatever. And that’s literally all it was to me, this thing I could wave around every few years and say “have you ever seen this?”. I admit never actually listened to it, not until a year later in 2010 when the S & C obsession took hold of me. All of which is to say yes, that sleeve pic above is of my own actual copy.
My deeply ingrained disdain for the song ( and album title) didn’t derail my Seals & Crofts Summer Love Experience though. We had a difference of opinion yes but I mean, I didn’t necessarily agree with everything my beloved Prince sang or said over the years so slack was cut. S & C and me, let’s just agree to disagree.
This line up is nuts for more reasons than I can list.
Thankfully someone had the good sense to document this incredible event for posterity. Want to see Dash Crofts in a fetching white suit and shades looking exceptionally rock star like and view some truly inspired interpretive dance by denim clad audience members soundtracked by “Diamond Girl”…yeah you do, so please, if you will, cast your eyes here. In addition I recommend you watch this vintage intro to a TV broadcast of the C-Jam here because the last couple of minutes are pure gold. And one last thing, Jim Dandy to the rescue. Truth be told, watching the audience enjoying the C-Jam is way more fun than watching the actual show. It’s an endless sea of sun-visors, jeans and mustaches…Linda’s and Susie’s…Mike’s and Tommy’s…and though we can’t technically see it, home to a no doubt staggering amount of weed.
“I’m not dumb Lindsay, I know what high people look like. I went to a Seals & Crofts concert last summer !”
Quote from Millie ( Freaks and Geeks Episode 13)
Listening to Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace album or watching its companion documentary of the same name doesn’t require that you follow her same faith or even practice any religion ( except maybe worshipping Aretha herself, hallelujah). Experiencing both of those aforementioned things is a visceral experience, the emotion expressed transcends specifics, it’s about a feeling. Before you get crazy, I am not about to compare listening to freakin’ Aretha to digging into S & C catalogue. It’s just easier to explain this next stuff by using the Amazing Grace experience as an example. Okay so while I was digging into the S & C discography I inevitably delved into a bit of the duo’s history and discovered they were longtime devoted followers of the Baha’i Faith. There are references to its tenets within the lyrics of some songs, not aggressive, but definitely in there if you’re looking. But it didn’t color my listening experience, didn’t come across as proselytizing. What I’m getting at is, like The Queen’s Amazing Grace the music of S & C is more about a feeling for me, evoking things that aren’t necessarily religious…like when we used eat outside at McDonald’s as kids and throw fries to the birds on hot ’70s Saturday afternoons. Does that make sense? It’s a feeling.
“Cause You Love” is a wake up call directed at all of humanity that is as gentle as being hit with a pillow stuffed with cotton balls and I love it.
What did I discover on my journey into the S & C discography? Well, Crofts’s voice had a quirky, occasionally cartoonish quality and sounded best when it was singing in harmony with Seals, who himself generally took the lead. And though things were sometimes cloudy lyrically, it never really rained, which is to say even the saddest, most serious Seals & Crofts songs were brimming with melodic optimism. Sure the aforementioned “Cause You Love” offers that times are “heavy” and “hard” but it still sounds like blazing sunshine. Yeah, “Baby Blue” is a song about leaving someone to go play the field but its melody is so joyful, its sentiment so polite and empathetic that it makes behaving like a restless bastard sound like flying a multi-colored kite. I liked how laid back plea for closeness “Million Dollar Horse” employed an actual “chk” sound in and around the chorus to represent a tiny bit of spur kicking. And while “Desert People” is specifically related to the aforementioned Baha’i faith and features the lines “so let your sweet rain fall on me, for I am dying, we’re desert people and we’re in pain, but we’re still trying”, it also sounds like something you’d listen to while driving to the freakin’ beach. “I Keep Changing The Faces” describes going from partner to partner and justifying the action because our protagonist is “in love with love” but its groovy Doobie Brother-esque backdrop makes him sound like the sweetest lounge lizard alive. And even though “If and Any Day” drips with regret and craves assistance from above it still sounds like the theme song of a ’70s movie about rollerskating at Venice Pier. Yup, songs by Seals & Crofts are fueled entirely by the fumes of a straight up unadulterated ’70s summer breeze.
If it’s cool enough for the THE GREATEST then clearly it’s cool enough for us all.
A summer fling. That’s really what it was, my Seals & Crofts obsession. A sort of sweet memory that lives mostly in the rearview. While I still have a handful of tracks in rotation and occasionally play ’em when the mood strikes, I haven’t indulged anywhere near as much as I did that July and August, haven’t felt the urge to hit play on the old playlist.
As a child I kept a scrapbook of celebrity obituaries and admittedly maintained only a tenuous relationship with the concept of “carefree” and “happy”. This kid who lived down the street was constantly referring to me as being “mad at the world”. And it used to piss me off (if only I’d known the word pragmatic back then I could’ve defended myself properly). I think in some weird way my infatuation with Seals & Crofts was related to that. They were like the sonic embodiment of the innocent carefree ’70s kid days and some particularly elusive feeling I wanted to grab a hold of and apply retroactively. That innate musical lightness and laid back groove they peddled seemed particularly in sync with that time or at least felt “as one” with it in my mind. Truth be told, it was f-ing fun, randomly becoming obsessed with a band from days of yore for reasons I both totally understand yet totally don’t. The whole experience was weird as hell…and I highly recommend it and wish it for everyone. Gonna close this out with something that’s never gonna get old because yeah, just have to…
That’s late, heroic, sacrificial, stray Soviet space dog Laika (1954-1957) as depicted in an extraordinarily weird and in retrospect somewhat disturbing drawing I did about 10 years ago. I’d become completely obsessed with her story for a bit, reading books, watching docs and ultimately applying a sticker with her picture onto my computer ( like you do) where she still lives today. This drawing actually gives me the creeps but I genuinely meant for it to be a “tribute”.
But HEY, welcome to the latest WEEKLY NEW WONDERS PLAYLIST featuring finest songs that have crossed our path over recent days. They are lush and sweet, tuneful and otherworldly and are all surely tied for the #1 spot in the charts over on Earth 2. You can hear ’em on Soundcloud or Spotify below fellow space dogs. Rock on…
NYC has been hit with a lot of snow lately. Coincidentally I’d already been toiling away on a drawing of a snowman when the weather took this turn. He’s just part of the nerdy Genesis Illustrated Lyrics book I’ve been making for “fun” (representing the song “Snowbound”) but his appearance was oddly well-timed. NYC is the absolute worst place to land if you are an actual snowflake (you are gonna get dirty and be disrespected the moment you make land). I can also confirm there are currently a lot of half finished, headless and abandoned snow-people in Central Park. I was going to include a picture but thought it might be too sad and disturbing, so yeah please enjoy this ice crystal-ed ballpoint snowguy making a snow angel instead…Know what else ? It’s time for the latest WEEKLY NEW WONDERS PLAYLIST, featuring the absolute finest songs we’ve heard over recent days. Not sure what was in the water, but this week’s playlist is generally pretty rockin’, offering up a lot of power-introspection, a little crying on the stairs, a mad nod to history as well as several mentions of California. It’s all awesome and you can listen below on Soundcloud or Spotify. Rock on…
“SexyBack”. “To the left, to the left, everything you own in the box to the left”. Stadium Arcadium. Welcome to the candy coated, bombastic and horny sound of 2006. In the heat of my daily grind at one of the gargantuan music superstores I was then employed at, these were the sounds that endlessly filled the air. Here’s the weird thing about being a music lover that works in a music store; sometimes by the end of the day you hate music, especially if you’ve spent the previous 8 hours listening to stuff you weren’t necessarily into. This means that once you get home you sometimes don’t want to listen to music at all. You crave quiet. White noise. Dead air. John Cage’s 4’33” on repeat. Peace. It was then, in that noisy year of 2006 that a band called Midlake entered my listening life.
One day that summer, I was rummaging through a box of new promotional cds, stuffing them into the player and “auditioning” them to figure out how much we should order (utilizing the supremely selfish and misguided human algorithm of “do I ever want to hear this again?”). This is how I stumbled upon The Trials Of Van Occupanther, the second album by Midlake, the sublime band who were to lead me to one of the most beloved musical finds of my whole nerdy life.
With its acoustic guitars, sweet harmonizing and overt ’70s singer-songwriter flavor (mountains, forests, rabbits, young brides all present and accounted for), Trials sounded utterly out of time, a complete left turn away from what was happening in mega shiny pop world. It was melodic and poetic and resembled the kind of thing your cool babysitter would listen to back in the day (ed.note, we had some cool, music-head sitters as kids including one who sweetly, insidiously tried to turn 9 year old me into a Deadhead but failed).Trials was the sound of a band turning their backs on modern civilization, walking steadfastly off the grid and into the woods…and as such I just plain loved it.
Think I’ll head home…
Not long after it’s release I read an interview with the band’s since departed singer-songwriter Tim Smith. In it he said something that piqued my interest beyond all reason:
“My favorite is a guy named Jimmie Spheeris. I always bring his name up because he’s not well known at all and it’s seriously my favorite album of all time, for the last four years. It’s called Isle of View. It was made in 1971. He put out five albums and then he got killed in a motorcycle accident. Yeah, it’s a brilliant album. It’s really beautiful. It’s still my favorite after so many years now”.
Jimmie Spheeris ? The name rang no bells. But I loved Midlake and if Tim Smith loved this Jimmie Spheeris guy then maybe just maybe I’d like him too. I tracked down the aforementioned Isle of View and discovered that yes it was both beautiful and kind of brilliant, an epic-spiritual-hippie-romantic piece of genuine singer-songwriter art. It was idyllic and outdoorsy, even a little “proggy” in places and relentlessly melodic all the while. And, added bonus, this Jimmie Spheeris also possessed a ridiculously fine and sensuous voice. Yup, the sonic connection between Isle of View and Trials was clear and palpable and I was instantly, eternally grateful to Tim Smith for enlightening me .
Once I’d “found” Jimmie Spheeris it didn’t take any hardcore sleuthing to get more in-depth information. Turned out there was a lovingly curated website as well as a Facebook page both of which offered up extensive factual history as well as a personal remembrances from bandmates, friends and fans. The short story went something like this: he was signed to Columbia records by Clive Davis on the recommendation of the wondrous Richie Havens, had issued 4 official albums in his lifetime but never achieved real mainstream success though he regularly appeared as the opening act for a slew of name artists throughout the ’70s ( everyone from Kenny Loggins to Cheech and Chong to The Moody Blues). His parents had run a traveling carnival when he was a child where his father had been murdered, he was was bisexual (or gay, sources differ), at some point he’d become involved with Scientology and in the midst of recording what was to be his 5th album was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident in 1984 at the age of 34. On top of all that, turned out his sister was renowned film director Penelope Spheeris of The Decline of Western CivilizationI & II and Wayne’s World fame.
Jimmie Spheeris toured hard…
I know that’s a lot to take in. And there are enough twists and turns within the Spheeris story that the mere idea of encapsulating it into a single paragraph is ridiculous. But this thing you’re reading is not meant to be a comprehensive history. It’s really just a humble invitation to anyone previously unaware of Jimmie to investigate and to start their journey at the main, most important point of entry, the music itself. It’s also just an unabashed, loved up validation of what longterm fans have known forever and 21st century acolytes like myself have blessedly discovered along the way, which is basically that Jimmie Spheeris was f-ing amazing.
Isle Of View (1971)
Carole King’s Tapestry, George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and CSNY’s live recording 4 Way Street all hit the # 1 album spot in 1971, the year Jimmie’s debut album Isle Of View was released. And listening to Isle in the context of what else was popular, it doesn’t seem all that different. Its songs were as tuneful and addictive as what was offered up on the aforementioned beautiful behemoths and you could easily imagine someone driving their VW bug to the record store and happily walking out with both Harrison and Isle Of View under the arm of their suede fringe jacket. Remember earlier when I said things get a little proggy ? Yeah that happens pretty fast, like on the opening track “The Nest”, a quiet/loud epic, all urgent strings, piano flourishes and crazy rock flute plus bonus awesome note twisting ( can’t beat Spheeris singing “unlock the tray-sure of stolen play-sure”). Isle Of View is melodic, utterly pragmatic and optimistically new age and sees Jimmie playing the role of both folk-rock hippie Nilsson (“Seeds Of Spring”,”For Roach”) and wistful acoustic balladeer (“Monte Luna”, “Come Back”). The album’s centerpiece is “I Am The Mercury” a monumental worship tune that morphs from a rainy day acoustic ballad into a stadium rock song, all thunderous drums, swirling strings and soaring falsettos, to true steamrolling effect.
Fun fact: the album was produced by Paul Leka who composed “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye”. One last thing ! In 2011 singer Kim Guy did a pretty sweet, shimmery gothic version of “I Am The Mercury” that is absolutely worth a listen (here).
Okay, gonna say it. This is my least favorite Spheeris album, home to only 3 songs I play on a regular basis. It the most dated sounding full length in the discography with nearly every track timestamped “70s” in some brazenly boldfaced way. It features some especially ostentatious flute playing (“Shirtful of Apples”), flanged out guitar soloing (“Open Up”) as well as a bit of marginally cringey kitsch ( the title track, “Sweet Wahina Mama”). I also detest the cover art. But please don’t let any of that put you off for there is some unquestionably good stuff to be had within TOTDK, namely “Streets of the Harbour” which sounds like the world’s leeriest, foxiest John Denver song, the beauteously hazy acoustic ballad “Keeper of the Canyon” (which feels like it wandered straight off Isle Of View) and “Moon on the Water” a warm, slow moving epic with some straight up “Fire and Rain” style drum action courtesy of the very man responsible, Russ Kunkel. This album is by no means bad ( Jimmie never made a bad album), but when compared to the other in the discography, it runs a tiny bit behind. Onward…
During a radio interview with KOFM in Oklahoma City in 1975, Jimmie said that he owned two horses (one being an Appaloosa) and that he lived at the beach (“I go swimming every day”). He also said he was “much more into the concept of artistic creation than money” and that he especially connected to the advice his longtime friend (and genius) Laura Nyro used to to tell him about creating music; “It’s just a feeling“. He then elaborated on her one line wisdom nugget; “it’s not so much the lyrical content or the musical notes being played but the spirit, the feeling in back of it. That’s my goal, to be able to really emote freely and totally’.
And that kind of nails the sound of The Dragon Is Dancing right there. These songs are straight up running around naked on a sunny beach. They are racing down the shoreline on their Appaloosa’s, wild as the wind and feelin’ it. Dragon sees Jimmie moving in a decidedly more pop direction, the sweetly tuneful “Tequila Moonlite” and jaunty heartbreak on the beach of “Summer Salt” being the most sugared up and singalong ready. And the latter half of the album is absolutely f-ing sublime i.e. there’s a lot to love and lose yourself in. There’s stunning, skeletal, nostalgic piano ballad “Lost In The Midway”, assertive Neil Young-esque rocker “Eternity Spin”, the aforementioned sweet “Salt” and the swirling acoustics of “Sunken Sighs”. “In The Misty Woods” unspools with genuine hypnotic beauty and features both an alluringly breathy vocal and the sound of gulls and waves crashing to further ensure you are where this album needs you be mentally if not physically. “Blown Out” is forthright and punchy, a declaration of dark obsession with a big fat chorus as well as a pre-cursor to the sound Kenny Loggins very successfully began serving up on his own solo albums just a couple of years later ( oh yes, read about that here). The piano led closer, ballad “Blue Streets” is one of the all-time finest songs in the Spheeris canon, all melancholy, lush and lonely, it’s the perfect note to end on. And have to stress one more time, that Spheeris voice is positively swoon-inducing on like, every damn song.
Fun fact:The Dragon Is Dancing was produced by the late Henry Lewy with Paul Lewinson. Lewy engineered and assisted in the production of a stream of Laurel Canyon classics including Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon, Blue and Court and Spark, Neil Young’s Harvest and Judee Sill’s only 2 studio albums. His CV is just your basic standard mind-blowing. That pedigree is all over Dragon and another reason why the album holds up so well today. Legend. Also, Jimmie’s back tattoo was real.
You know how Sgt Pepper sounds just like it looks ? Well Ports Of The Heart sounds just like it looks. It is the aural embodiment of suntan lotion and burning rays (with a little summer rain thrown in because you know, lifesucks sometimes). Ports is where Jimmie Spheeris goes full on pop to glorious effect and is home to the most woulda/shoulda/ coulda been hits. It’s also a prescient precursor of the fabled West Coast sound ( read about that here and here) that was about to flood the U.S. pop and AC singles charts. In other words, Ports is radio ready melodic end to end. But while there is infectious ear candy to be had namely in the form of “Captain Comes Cold” and “Sweet Separation”( which may remind you of the Dragon album’s “Tequila Moonlite”), Ports is by no means a party album, it’s more of a long, languorous stroll with a couple of fireworks thrown in along the way to break things up. The peacefully paced tracks are exquisite to the last; Dark, hot and historic “Bayou Eyes”, glistening pop hymn of rebirth “Child From Nowhere”, gentle nod to higher love “It’s You They’re Dreaming Of”, the simultaneously cryptic and revealing “So Darkly Fall the Shadows” and the seriously loved up “Whirlpool” are all wondrous things. These songs are the kind of gorgeous, immersive shiz you put on when you need to calm the hell down or just feel too much in the world and want to escape. There are also a couple of sentimental covers on Ports of evergreen oldies “It’s All in the Game” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, both of which are, you know, okay. If they weren’t included it wouldn’t have affected the quality of the overall album one iota, Ports would still be a beautiful thing.
Fun fact: Perhaps you can surmise it from the album cover but yes, Jimmie was tall, 6’4″ to be exact.
Spheeris (recorded in 1984, not released until 2000)
Jimmie Spheeris was killed in Santa Monica, California by an drunk driver while riding his motorcycle on the Fourth of July in 1984. He was returning home after finishing work on what turned out to be his final album. Spheeris wasn’t officially released on cd until 2000, 16 years after it had been completed.
The list of established artists who put out substandard music in the ’80s in a desperate attempt to sound modern is endless. Dylan, The Stones, Bowie, Leonard Cohen, CSN and on and on. But this “forced” shift into modernity with its fat synths and effects doesn’t sound remotely unnatural or awkward coming from Jimmie on the Spheeris album. It never sounds like he is acting out the sad old “fake it ’til you make it” adage. Nope, the songs and production make it clear that he has totally embraced the “future sound” (and far more seamlessly and believably than his old school counterparts). And oh yes, there are some absurdly fine and frothy tunes to be had within Spheeris, the best being synthesized epic “Hear It”, a plush and heavenly thing featuring some badass enormous Phil Collins style drum injections, and the groovy, Thomas Dolby-esque “Jungle Sweep”. Honorable mentions go to the seriously Prince-ly “You Will Be Coming Back”, “You Got” (kinda Devo meets early Madonna), “You Must Be Laughing Somewhere” ( a tip of the hat to ’80s era Joni Mitchell) and “Eyes”, an eerie ballad that sounds like it wandered off a slick ’80s crime-thriller soundtrack and straight onto this record.
Still if you are not a fan of the processed and echoey sounds of the ’80s then you might not be into what Jimmie and co are doing here ( I love it but I get that not everyone does, yup). Thankfully there are a couple of tracks to sate you if you crave more of that old school Jimmie sound. If you are a traditionalist then mournfully gorgeous tearjerker “Three In Venice” will be right up your alley as will the sticky, endearingly rockin’ “Decatur Street” (which is also home to a Hook with a capitol H).
Fun fact but mostly FYI: 2000 also saw the release of a live cd, recorded in 1976, called An Evening With Jimmie Spheeris. It’s a cool curio but not essential unless you are a mega-fan. Much as I love him, I don’t actually listen to it very often and generally stay barnacled to the studio albums. An Evening is not available on the streaming services as of this writing but a few tracks have found their way to YouTube. You can check out the live version of “I Am The Mercury” here.
Who is Jimmie Speeris? At every record shop I ever at worked at in days of yore, we would sell truckloads of Miles Davis’s Kind Of Blue. New people were discovering this 50+ year old record and Miles himself every single day. And I always thought, how cool is that, that something as old and established as Kind Of Blue can still be new to someone, can still blow someone’s mind a trillion years later. Anyway, what all those years of watching people discover music taught me was that it doesn’t matter where or when you came in. Songs, albums and bands find you when they sense you are ready to welcome them. It’s not science, it’s just some fortuitous, otherworldly force that hits the switch and says “now”. And isn’t that the best ? To know that there’s still a wealth of great stuff from the past to discover in addition to all the new stuff coming down the pike? When I get wind of an R & B song from the early ’70s that I’ve never heard, I am as thrilled as toddler tearing ass to the gift pile under the tree xmas morning.
I discovered Jimmie right when I was supposed to, not too late, definitely not too early but right on time. And I’m genuinely grateful to all the hardcores that kept the flame burning ( without whom…) and psyched for anyone who is about to discover this guy for the first time because he was, is and will continue to be pretty damn awesome. “Unlock the tray-sure of stolen play-sure”, hell yeah.
New month, new deranged ballpoint drawing. More importantly welcome to the latest WEEKLY NEW WONDERS PLAYLIST featuring the most lustrous and brilliant songs that have crossed our path in recent days. You can listen on Soundcloud or Spotify below and I swear I’m not being hyperbolic here, they are all really good.
In regards to the blog, since my mega-housecleaning of its environs last week I’ve been writing all kinds of demented, self-indulgent tributes to pop music people and things so look out for some goofy new stuff this coming week.
One last quick thing! In addition to the members of the latest WEEKLY NEW WONDERS, I want to give a shout out to the new album by The Staves, Good Woman because it is damn good. While I have included tracks from it within the aforementioned WONDERS playlist, I strongly encourage you to listen to the whole album…in fact, know what, I’ll attach the links to it below to make it easier. Rock on friends…