Al Stewart is a British singer/songwriter, best known for the 1976 hit single 'The Year of the Cat'. He was born in Glasgow, grew up in Bournemouth and moved to the USA in the late 70s, where he has met with more success than in the UK, so much so that one track 'Time Passages' was used in an episode of the series The Sopranos. His career started in the mid-1960s and he is still going strong, having released over 20 albums in that time. He still tours, and I saw him live at the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels a few years back.
==== BETWEEN THE WARS, THE CONCEPT ====
I remember that there was a vogue to produce concept albums, which seemed to be a pretentious term to excuse what seemed like the musical equivalent of a stream of conscience. Between the Wars is based around a single concept - what the world was like between the two world wars. From his whole work, you can tell that Al Stewart is fascinated with history. In this album, he takes this interest one step further, combining historical themes with music in styles that evoke that era perfectly. The inlay photo is a scene from central Paris of the era.
==== STYLE AND CONTENT ====
For me, the defining features of those songs of Al Stewart that I have particularly liked were interesting and intelligent lyrics and great guitar playing. There is plenty of both on this album. Indeed, the album opens with a wonderful guitar solo setting the scene for the moody and claustrophobic "Night Train to Munich", a story of espionage and spies. I like not just the way he rhymes 'Munich' with 'tunic', but also the way in which he stresses the syllables so that there is no hint of forcing the rhyme.
Stewart tailors the style to content masterfully. In 'Joe the Georgian', a song about the brutality of Stalin, the balalaika music seems only to highlight the meaninglessness of the show trials and mindless brutality. The optimism of the 1920s boom is captured by the lightness of 'Sampan' and 'Lindy Comes to Town'. In this latter song, the mood is beautifully described in these lyrics:
" Every day is better than the one before it
If I see a raincloud then I'll just ignore it
Everbody says it'll get much better yet
It's 1927 and my whole life lies ahead
Gonna get myself a car and find a place to park it
Get a little cash and put it in the market
And on my wedding day I will turn around and say
There never was a better time than this one anyway."
The more serious issues are captured in the despair of 'Laughing into 1939' and the futility of 'Three Mules'. The mules in question are the 3 British Prime Ministers, Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, trying through their policy of appeasement to stave off a repeat of the carnage of the Great War. There is also a very stirring song about the Spanish Civil War, 'Always the Cause'.
The collection is complemented by a couple of instrumental tracks.
==== APPRECIATION ====
This album was recommended to me by an Al Stewart fanatic, knowing my love of history and appreciation of clever word play. I have not been at all disappointed in this regard, and the highly polished quality of the music has made this a really pleasurable album to listen to. I like the inventiveness of the themes, shown most clearly in the song 'League of Notions'. This is a play on words on the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations set up to ensure world peace. In this song, Stewart captures the difficulty of defining a sustainable European order in Versailles from the wreck of Germany, not just with the lyrics, but by making the word a round song, which seems to recur like a canon, yet with the words changing subtly each time. Having seen difficult negotiations between EU governments at first hand, this perpetually shifting tableau conveys the complexity of the situation really well. I particularly like the wry aside reported to the French Prime Minister " Woodrow Wilson has his fourteen points / But Clemenceau turns to Lloyd George / And says "You know that / God himself had only ten"
This album has shown me that there is so much more to Al Stewart than 'The Year of the Cat'. It stands on its own, is varied, witty and moving in places. My only disappointment was that Al Stewart did not sing any of the songs from this album at the concert I attended. Maybe he thought it too difficult to single one track out. I would certainly recommend listening to all the variations and variety in this album.
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==== TECHNICAL DETAILS ====
My personal rating: 9/10
Year of release: 1995
Total running time: 48 mins 44 seconds
1. Night Train to Munich
2. Age of Rhythm
4. Lindy Comes to Town
5. Three Mules
6. League of Notions
7. Life Between the Wars
8. Betty Boop's Birthday
9. Marion the Chatelaine
10. Joe the Georgian
11.Always the Cause
12. Laughing into 1939
13. Black Danube
Al Stewart - vocal
Laurence Juber - guitars, banjo, six string bass, dobro, mandolin, synth strings
Bobby Bruce - violin
Tim Landers - acoustic bass guitar
Sam Riney - clarinet, soprano sax
Guy Babylon - synth strings, tack piano
Steve Forman - percussion
Suzoe Katayama - cello, accordion
Domenic Genova - arco bass
Herman Beeftink - piano, synth strings
James Hutchinson - bass
Jim Keltner - drums
Robin Lamble - backing vocals
Andrew Powell - synth strings
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Night Train To Munich
2 Age Of Rhythm
4 Lindy Comes To Town
5 Three Mules
6 League Of Notions
7 Life Between The Wars
8 Betty Boop's Birthday
9 Marion The Chatelaine
10 Joe The Georgian
11 Always The Cause
12 Laughing Into 1939
13 Black Danube