Wednesday, January 28, 2015

CD Review: The Waterboys, Modern Blues

The Waterboys
Modern Blues
Harlequin And Clown, CLOWNE1 (2015)

Bob Dylan has long admitted to being a fan of Scottish bard Robert Burns and has also stated that “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” was based on old Scottish ballad. Perhaps then it’s not surprising that he has had an enduring influence on modern-day Scottish singer-songwriters. Perhaps the first was Donovan, who endured criticism (not least from Dylan himself) that he was a Dylan wannabe. Certainly “Catch the Wind” owed a clear debt to Dylan’s lyrical and musical style of the time (1965), but poor Donovan certainly wasn’t the first, last, or only to be so charged.

In the 1970s, the next Scottish singer to carry Bob’s torch was Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople. Pressed into service as the lead singer, he all but mimicked Dylan’s drawling delivery on Mott’s first album. Thereafter, the influence came out more in his introspective lyrics; to this day, Hunter remains a fan. In a 2012 interview, he said, “If I listen to anybody these days it would be Bob Dylan because he’s the yardstick. You write a song like ‘Jokerman’ or ‘Every Grain of Sand’ it’s hard to get anywhere near the same league. That’s the only guy I would listen to today because I think he’s amazing.”

Edinburgh-born Mike Scott came to modest fame in the early to mid 1980s as the leader of the Waterboys. Poetic, spiritual, and frequently changing his band’s musical style, he is much like Dylan, except less oblique about revealing himself to his fans. He has also hailed Dylan’s influence and has covered several Dylan songs over the years.

The point of all this is really just to say that I hear a lot of Dylan in the brand new Waterboys album, Modern Blues. It’s more of a hard rock album than Dylan would do, and that itself is reflective of Dylan’s own changeling nature. After all, the previous Waterboys album comprised a set of Yeats poems and writings that Scott set to music. Over the course of 11 studio albums, the Waterboys evolved from a horn-driven, highly literate, post-punk soul band (biggest hit, “The Whole of the Moon” from 1985’s This Is The Sea) to a roots-oriented band with emphasis on fiddle and mandolin (biggest hit, the title track to 1988’s Fisherman’s Blues), to a guitar-driven band singing of spiritual ecstasy and romantic despair (no hits to speak of).

In recent years, Scott has been bouncing Neil Young-like from one extreme to the next, from 2003’s haunting and meditative Universal Hall to 2007’s rip-roaring Book of Lightning, to 2011’s psychedeliterate An Appointment With Mr. Yeats, to the current disc. If there’s a problem with this, it’s that Scott’s second banana, Irish fiddler Steve Wickham, a fan favorite, sometimes has not much to do. Wickham came on to the scene at the end of the This Is The Sea sessions, and was a key factor of the Fisherman’s Blues era (in fact, he co-wrote the title track with Scott). When Scott decided to bring electric guitar to the fore, Wickham left, not to return until more than a decade had passed. In concert, he is to Scott what Richards is to Jagger, what Perry is to Tyler, what Page was to Plant; yet on the recent albums, he seems not to have a lot to do. On the current album, he plays “fuzz fiddle,” turning in a fiery solo on the opening track that I originally thought was electric guitar. Beyond that, I don’t hear him. It seems like his role is to fulfill the Fisherman’s Blues-era songs in concert and otherwise to fit in by playing loud and electric. He has much more than that to offer, but knowing Scott, it’s likely that his compass will at some point shift again to a position more welcoming to acoustic fiddle.

As for the album itself, two songs were previewed on the band’s last concert tour: “Still a Freak” and “I Can See Elvis.” Ironically, they are the two I care for least, not because they are bad or familiar, but because they seem tossed off in comparison to the depth of thought and feeling that is apparent in the other songs. The former is the defiant crow of an aging rocker, insisting “Things disappear but I’m still here” and “I ain’t been gagged/I’m still flying the flag.” The latter is a fantasy about Elvis partying in heaven with other dead rockers and famous figures from history. Had he not mined this idea already with “The Return of Jimi Hendrix” in 1993, I would be more forgiving of it.

The rest of the nine-song, 51-minute album, however, is pure gold, the kind of songs you wish they’d play on the radio but you know they never will. Inspiring my Dylan thesis, many of the songs are lyrically dense, long, and rich. The opening song, “Destinies Entwined,” is not only a powerful rocker, the lyrics scan almost perfectly with Dylan’s “Up to Me,” a beautiful outtake from Blood On The Tracks, and the story they tell is not too dissimilar from “Isis,” which appeared on Desire.

Her point of view was radical, more than just a change of plan
She sold me her proposal which I did not understand
She said the secret’s in the road, I tried to decode the signs
And followed her for seven years, all eyes and ears
Our destinies entwined

The following track, “November Tale,” is another relationship song, where Scott meets a woman from his past and her religious orthodoxy and his more organic spirituality clash. Scott’s vocal delivery, more spoken than sung, is reminiscent of Dylan’s but with better articulation. “The Girl Who Slept for Scotland” is beautifully written and compelling, but I have to be honest I have no idea what it’s about. Still, it’s a wonderful listen, even as Scott gets uncharacteristically sexual:

Yet I remember a day by a river wild
When she clung to me hard like a darling child
And a night in the sheets of a Dublin bed
When she moaned like a woman and gave sweet head

Similarly obscure, in “Rosalind (You Married the Wrong Guy)”, Scott sings (apparently) to the heroine of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, casting aspersions on her marriage to Orlando. A bluesy pub rocker with fierce Hammond organ by Waterboy newbie Paul Brown, the song kicks butt and that’s good enough for me.

The most radio-friendly song is “Beautiful Now,” featuring a poppy melody and a happy lyric (“You were beautiful then, sweet angel/You’re way more beautiful now”). That’s followed by the more mournful “Nearest Thing to Hip,” in which Scott laments the passing of a cafĂ© where jazz played on the box, an old record store that went out of business, and a bar and a bookstore that no longer stand. It’s actually rather reminiscent of Ian Hunter, who in his later years has turned his keen sunglass-covered eyes on the things we and he have lost.

The album closes with “Long Strange Golden Road,” a 10-minute, 10-verse epic poem on the scale of “Desolation Row” or “Sad Old Lady of the Lowlands,” but with that chugging electric guitar (this is the only song on which Scott takes a solo, though two other lead guitarists ably drive six other tunes). The song is preceded by an excerpt of an old scratchy recording of Jack Kerouac (another Dylan reference) reading from On The Road, and the lyrics tell of Scott’s desire to hit the road himself, inspired by Kerouac’s words and voice.

I was longing to be wooed, I was ready to be humbled
By the words that you had written, by the syllables you mumbled
Yeah, I was ready in my heart to have my heart invaded
By the fervor of your passion, yes I came to be persuaded

But when I heard your ragged voice something switched in my perception
And I knew I was the victim of a beautiful deception
All my once exact beliefs like tangled threads unraveled
I walked out stunned and liberated and so began my travels

For the most part, Steve Wickham excepted, “The Waterboys” is Mike Scott and whomever he hires to play with him. On Modern Blues, recorded mostly in Nashville, most of the band have no more Waterboy experience than the last U.S. tour (drummer Ralph Salmins dates back to An Appointment With Mr. Yeats). Yet the recording does feature the all-star presence of bassist David Hood of Muscle Shoals fame, who keeps it nice and funky.

All in all, I have to say that as a Waterboys fan, this is yet another winner from Mike Scott. Which is to say it will sink like a stone. But I hope I’m wrong about that because more people should know about the Waterboys and more Waterboys fans should embrace their new recordings. Because to paraphrase something Dylan sang 50 years ago, there’s something happening here and not enough people know what it is. And that’s a damn shame.

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