Thursday, September 5, 2013

CD Odyssey Disc 547: Dire Straits

After a crazy day at work I am about to be rewarded with the start of the NFL season!  Yeehaw – football, the greatest sport ever invented.  As thoughtful as a championship chess match, but where each move ends in a violent collision.

Before I do though, I’m taking advantage of my PVR to delay the game an hour and write this review. 

Disc 547 is…. On Every Street
Artist: Dire Straits

Year of Release: 1991

What’s up with the Cover?  It looks like the eighties puked on a nineties graphics program.  This is a pair of shoes on a desk and a guitar in the background, done a second time as an inset because a) you could have missed it the first time and b) that is the kind of lame effect nineties graphics programs are capable of.

How I Came To Know It:  As an avowed Dire Straits fan, this was just me drilling through their collection.

How It Stacks Up:  We have six studio albums by Dire Straits, which I believe is all of them.  Something had to be last, and regrettably “On Every Street” is it.

Rating:  2 stars

No matter how great the band, it is rare that their last album is their best.  Most rock acts die with a whimper.  “On Every Street” is Dire Straits’ death knell, and it is by far their weakest effort, but it does show the glimpses of what would become an amazing solo career for Mark Knopfler that continues to this day.  As average as “On Every Street” is, it still has some bright spots; you just can’t keep a great band like Dire Straits down.

The first and most famous song on the album is “Calling Elvis” is sadly not one of the album’s best.  It is a gimmick song, determined to fill itself with as many strained Elvis references as it can.  It is supposed to be a moody blues rock piece but it just sounds like the band is desperate for a runaway pop hit (it was more of a walkaway pop single).

Calling Elvis” (and many other songs on the album) suffer from long boring fadeouts.  In previous albums, this part of the song would be filled with some classic Knopfler guitar solos, but on “On Every Street” it just feels like they don’t know how to end the songs and so they settle for repeating the riff as they turn the volume down to zero.

Also, there is far too much saxophone and piano action on parts of the song where on earlier albums Knopfler would play some guitar licks.  Is it apparent yet that this album doesn’t have enough of Knopfler’s guitar?  When you have the world’s greatest rock guitarist, let him wail!

All this saxophone and piano too often morphs into what I would call “gumshoe blues.”  These are songs that sound like they’d be at home as background music for a TV show like “Moonlighting” or in that Kathleen Turner flop, “V.I. Warshawski” (also released in 1991).  “Fade to Black” and “You and Your Friend” are the two worst offenders for this effect, but others are guilty to lesser degrees.

The title track, “On Every Street” starts off with a bit of this eighties gumshoe sound, but it is such a good song it recovers itself into respectability, if not actual excellence.

In many ways this album reminded me of “Love Over Gold” with its obvious love of detective imagery, but without that album’s level of songwriting.

When I first listened to this album, the songs that appealed to me were the driving rock of “Heavy Fuel” and the laid-back humour of “My Parties” but after repeat listens both of these started to have the same novelty feel of “Calling Elvis.”

The Bug” is a passable song, but in a strange twist of fate I learned the Mary Chapin Carpenter version first and found on comparison, I liked it better.  Sorry, Mark!

Despite all this criticism, there is some good stuff.  Even though the songs are simple, the musicianship is excellent, and good playing will elevate any song.  Also, there are legitimately good songs.

The two best hint at the direction Knopfler’s solo album is going to go, starting with “Iron Hand.” “Iron Hand” is a Coles Notes version of the epic “Brothers in Arms” off of their earlier album of the same name.  “Iron Hand” is Knopfler exploring his passion in military history, and the lessons it teaches us.

I don’t know what historical event “Iron Hand” is referencing (we're told early on that the soldiers wear blue, but that doesn’t help much) but the lyrics are evocative:

“Oh the iron will and the iron hand
In England’s green and pleasant land
No music for the shameful scene
That night they said it had even shocked the queen”

Followed by the reminder that we’re no better as a species now:

“Well alas we’ve seen it all before
Knights in armour, days of yore
The same old fears, and the same old crimes
We haven’t changed since ancient times.”

Knopfler sings it in a wistful and haunting tone, and lets his guitar punctuate here and there to add emotional resonance without overpowering the basic tune.

Also memorable is “How Long,” a Blue Rodeo-esque track (who have a totally different song also called “How Long”).  Knopfler’s shows his burgeoning love for western music and guitar styles that continue to enrich his playing today.  In “How Long” these western constructions are forged into a song where a man gently chides the woman of his desire to give him a little attention before he loses interest and moves on.  The description sounds a bit petulant but the tune makes it emotionally light and even a little playful.

Hearing both “Iron Hand” and “How Long” put a smile on my face after other tracks had left me with a grimace.  Even if they were few and far between, hearing these songs provides the bridge to classic Knopfler solo efforts like “Golden Heart” and “Sailing to Philadelphia” and shows that a band can still spawn something beautiful, even in its last moments.

Best tracks:  On Every Street, Iron Hand, How Long

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