Thursday, October 3, 2013

CD Odyssey Disc 556: Dire Straits

I’m feeling kind of tired today, but I’m also excited to write this review and finish off another band on the CD Odyssey.

Disc 556 is…. Brothers in Arms
Artist: Dire Straits

Year of Release: 1985

What’s up with the Cover?  This cover answers the question “where do guitars go when they die?”  Guitar heaven, of course.  Either that or this guitar has learned to fly.  Sometimes when I can’t make my guitar make the sounds I want it to I consider seeing if it can fly, but fortunately the feeling quickly passes.

How I Came To Know It:  If you’re my age and you don’t know this album, you probably live in a cave.  I never owned it until Sheila bought it mind you, so I really only knew half the songs until then, but now it has been in our collection for a long time, and is like an old friend.

How It Stacks Up:  We have six of Dire Straits studio albums, plus one live album.  Of the six studio albums, I rank “Brothers in Arms” second, narrowly beating out their self-titled debut by the thinnest of margins.

As this is the last Dire Straits album I currently have for review, tradition dictates a quick recap in order of preference:
  1. Making Movies: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 245)
  2. Brothers in Arms: 4 stars (reviewed right here)
  3. Self-Titled: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 501)
  4. Communique:  3 stars (reviewed at Disc 375)
  5. Love Over Gold:  3 stars (reviewed at Disc 79)
  6. On Every Street:  2 stars (reviewed at Disc 547)

And in addition to these was their live album, Alchemy, which doesn’t really stack up but garnered 3 stars back at Disc 527.

Rating:  4 stars, but almost 5

Sometimes a song can be so big it can overshadow not only an album, but a band’s entire career.  On their 1985 “Brothers in Arms” album, “Money For Nothing” came close to doing that to Dire Straits.  Fortunately, in the long run the album was able to resist that pressure due to its many other good songs.

When I first heard “Money for Nothing” I wanted to hate it, if for no other reason than the stupid but incomprehensively popular music video it spawned.  The video did nothing for the song, and everything to underscore how bad computer graphics were in 1985.

However, when Sting finally stops asking for his MTV, and one of most classic rock riffs ever written launches, I was converted.  Here is a song about a bunch of ignoramus’ talking while they move appliances around.  The lyrics are ridiculous, and at times offensive (and should remain so, I should note).  But when that riff hits, played by history’s greatest rock guitarist Mark Knopfler, there is no resisting this song’s charm.

And for some, that is where it ends.  Well, that and the occasional appearance of their earlier hit “Sultans of Swing” on FM radio.  While “Brothers in Arms” released five songs as singles only “Money for Nothing” and “Walk of Life” were top ten hits.  Two others barely cracked top forty, and the fifth didn’t even manage that.  This shows once again how useless radio is at determining what great music is about.

Of course the other hit, “Walk of Life” does have that organ riff that puts a spring in your step before Knopfler ever plays a note.  I love this song and the feeling of euphoria it gives me, but we all know how much fun it is, so let’s move on.

The record actually starts with “So Far Away.” This is a song with a laid back vibe, beautiful guitar and a big, echoing sound that sets the mood for the whole album.  This is Dire Straits in their later years; no longer feeling the need to wail away with speed, but happy to fill your groove trough going slow and easy.  Overall “Brothers in Arms” has less noodling than any of their previous albums, but it doesn’t take away from its impact.

If anything, some of the longer instrumental sections are part of the reason this record falls short of perfection.  “Why Worry” and “Ride Across the River” both have long trails on them that could easily be cut in half.  On both their self-titled debut and their live album, “Alchemy”, the solos didn’t bother me as much because they blew me away with sheer brilliance.  On this record they tend to be mood pieces that don’t fully develop into anything, or add much to the songs.

That said, I forgive “Why Worry” simply because the rest of the song is so gorgeous.  Knopfler’s guitar feels like it is just picking random notes out of heaven as the mood hits him, but in fact the melody is intricately constructed.  Where “Walk of Life” gives you a feeling of ebullience and energy, “Why Worry” lets you know that it is OK to just chill out and relax.

As with their other later records, the band can’t seem to resist eighties monstrosities like excess saxophone and what I’ve previously referred to as “gumshoe blues.”  “Your Latest Trick” is as bad an offender as any.  If I could do one thing for this album, I’d remove this song. 

My favourite song on the album, is the title track, “Brothers in Arms.” Sure the title track painfully rhymes “world” and “worlds” in its penultimate stanza, and yes it has some guitar and organ work that doesn’t go anywhere quickly.  However, in this case the guitar is perfectly placed, and the organ fills in the silence in between as unnoticed and powerfully as gravity.  The whole effect serves to heighten the intensity of the topic; the honour of the individual soldier, juxtaposed against mankind’s inexplicable need to kill one another.

“Brothers in Arms” is a five star song.  Knopfler pulls all the pain and hope of our sorry species out of his guitar strings and turns it into a blanket for the lyrics to fall into. I’ve heard this song a hundred times but every time this final stanza hits me the hairs stand up on the back of my neck:

“Now the sun’s gone to hell
And the moon’s riding high
Let me bid you farewell
Every man has to die.
But it’s written in the starlight
And every line on your palm
We’re fools to make war
On our brothers in arms.”

Here we have a weary soldier, finished with his day of war. Looking up to the night sky he sees not insignificance, but rather a vast universe looking back down with a combination of disappointment and hope. The song then fades away into some transcendent guitar so you can decide for yourself what the new day is going to bring.

This album is unified in sound, yet runs through a range of emotion and subjects.  If it weren’t for a couple of minor bumps in the road it could easily be a five star album.  As it is, I’m going to mark it just short.  Besides, it is always good to have something to hope for.

Best tracks:   So Far Away, Money For Nothing, Walk of Life, Why Worry, The Man’s Too Strong, Brothers in Arms

1 comment:

Kim said...

That last stanza does it for me, too. Very poignant and riveting. I had always enjoyed Dire Straits and especially Lady Writer. But- Brothers in Arms touches a different nerve. It is the once-in-a-blue-moon song. It holds you and lingers in the Soul.