Wednesday, February 29, 2012

CD Odyssey Disc 375: Dire Straits

It's been cold around here lately, which has made me appreciate my new headphones that much more. They are the big, cushion kind as opposed to the earbuds. Not only is the sound a lot more natural sounding, they keep my ears warm.

Do they look a little silly? Maybe a little, but all the kids are doing it.

Disc 375 is...Communique

Artist: Dire Straits

Year of Release: 1979

What’s Up With The Cover?: This is one of those ultra-modern (for the time) pastel drawings that you'd find festooning the walls of early eighties bachelor pads. This one is by some guy named Geoff Halpin, and is designed to look like a beach inside the design of an envelope. Not my style, but passable for a Dire Straits album cover, given their other offerings.

How I Came To Know It: I've known Dire Straits a long time, but "Communique" came to me fairly late, while digging through their collection. In the mid-nineties Sheila had introduced me to "Making Movies" (reviewed back at Disc 245) and I was in awe of its greatness. "Communique" was just me drilling through their collection.

How It Stacks Up: We have all six Dire Straits studio albums. "Communique" is in the middle of the pack - I'll say 3rd or 4th best.

Rating: 3 stars, but almost 4.

Mark Knopfler is the finest rock guitarist of his generation. In fact the hardest part about trying to review Dire Straits' "Communique" is separating his guitar out from the rest of the record.

Lyrically, this album is not particularly memorable. The best offering on that front is "Portobello Belle" a song about a tough girl acting pretty, or a pretty girl acting tough - or a bit of both:

"She sees a man upon his back there
Escaping from a sack there
And bella donna lingers
Her gloves they got no fingers
Yeah, the blind man singing Irish
He get his money in a tin dish
Just a corner serenader
Upon a time he could have made her, made her
Yeah, she thinks she's tough
She ain't no English rose
Ah, but the blind singer
He's seen enough and he knows
Yes and do a song about a long gone Irish girl
I got one for you, Portobello belle."

It is a song about a lost Irish girl that could be in turn of the century New York or modern London depending on the verse - because tough, but vulnerable girls have gotten lost in big cities many times over the decades. Mark Knopfler reminds us not to forget them.

Musically, this album has the usual big bluesy rock guitar that has made Mark Knopfler famous. In particular, "Lady Writer," and "Single Handed Sailor" are master classes in how to fill a room with the warm groove of an electric guitar. Although "Lady Writer" was the single that was released, I would've gone with "Single Handed Sailor." Knopfler sings:

"On a night when the lazy wind is wailing
Around the Cutty Sark
yeah the single handed sailor goes sailing
Sailing away in the dark."

And accompanying the words, his guitar paints a night sky in your mind and fills it with a lazy wind of sound. Knopfler's guitar speaks to the soul and gives his voice a resonance far beyond what it deserves.

On "Communique" Knopfler also expirements with his traditional sound. In songs like "Where Do You Think You're Going?" he adds in western guitar elements that would be equally at home in a Johnny Cash song ten years earlier. What makes Mark Knopfler my favourite guitar player is partly that he is always growing his style and incorporating new ideas. "Communique" steps away from the pure blues-rock of Dire Straits' debut album, and likely hurt them commercially in the process. However, without this bravery they would never have grown their sound out of being an excellent bar-jam blues band and into a sound all their own.

Which is not to say "Communique" is simply a stepping stone to other records. It is good on its own as well, if not the masterpiece that "Making Movies" would be a year later. However, "Making Movies" is without weakness. On "Communique" there are moments ("Lady Writer" and "News" come to mind) where it is Knopfler's genius on the guitar alone that is holding together the song, and that's too bad, because it keeps the album from being great.

This album is best when it is working on their new sound, which fortunately they have the bravery to do often. This is a good record that sneaks up on you in a good way. I wouldn't start my Dire Straits collection here, but I would go here pretty quickly after I had an ear for their later sound, because it is a joy to hear that sound being born.

Best tracks: Once Upon A Time In The West, Communique, Portobello Belle, Single Handed Sailor

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

geoff halpin did the cover art on my 1977 Econovan shaggin' wagon.

- Casey

lots of comments today. i'm digitizing LPs for MANday.