Monday, April 20, 2015

CD Odyssey Disc 728: Gordon Lightfoot

A few days ago I thought I was done buying albums by both Pantera and the Rolling Stones. However, because of my last review (Pantera), and a friend’s recommendation (The Rolling Stones) I was out yesterday buying one more of each…but I’ll talk about those when I roll them.

Disc 728 is…. East of Midnight
Artist: Gordon Lightfoot

Year of Release: 1986

What’s up with the Cover? Artists should stick to their strengths on album covers. For, Gord this usually means putting his giant head front and centre. On those few occasions when you see his clothes, it should only reveal that he wears threadbare jeans and hippy sandals.

What Gord does not do is wear eighties club wear or try to channel his inner lounge singer. That’s because when he does, he just ends up looking like a drifter who rolled Don Johnson for his clothes.

How I Came To Know It: I grew up with Gordon Lightftoot, but I found this album in a discount tape bin at A&B sound in the early nineties. I believe it cost $2.95. Nowadays all tapes cost that but back in 1990 this was a good deal for a kid living on a student’s income and looking for a bargain.

How It Stacks Up:  With last year’s giveaway of “Summer Side of Life” I am now down to nine Gordon Lightfoot albums. “East of Midnight” ranks ninth.

Rating: 2 stars

O eighties production, is there any style of music you can’t wreck? Apparently not, as “East of Midnight” proves that even Canadian folk icon Gordon Lightfoot is not immune to its terrors.

The album starts out with a droning electric guitar that is so fuzzed up and drained of life that at first I thought it was a synthesizer. Gord tries to save the day with his vocals, delivering some laid back lyrics advising you to “stay loose” (also the title of the song). The problem is that with all the thin, non-committal instrumentation it is the kind of staying loose you might experience in an elevator. You know, the listless boredom brought on by songs that have been transformed into muzak.

Much of “East of Midnight” has this effect on me. Usually the offending instrument is that bane of all eighties albums; the saxophone. On at least half these tracks it pokes its ugly head out of the song to blare away three or four notes that at best should be sounded by a guitar and at worst should not be sounded at all. I imagine sessional sax players made quite a living, sauntering into the studio to blow a few notes, pretend like it was jazz, and then saunter off again looking for the next easy mark.

Gord’s vocals are pretty thinned out at this point in his career, but he sings with conviction and for the most part his lyrics and innate understanding of how to write a pretty melody keep these songs from total collapse. Songs like “East of Midnight” and “Let It Ride” aren’t the best on the album, but Gord’s lyrics manage to keep them above water.

When that collapses too, as it does on the album’s nadir “Anything for Love” you’ve got nowhere left to turn. What makes this song so truly terrible? For starters, the synthesizer/keyboard crimes are worse than anywhere else on the record. Mercifully there is no saxophone, but the pointless and excessive background vocals more than make up for the absence. The melody is the biggest crime; an uninspired regurgitation of the vacuous radio pop of its day. This is thrown up with the workmanlike disinterest of a town drunk looking to mitigate the next morning’s hangover before he hits the sack. As you might expect, it is way less appetizing the second time around.

You can’t totally blame Gord for this one though, because the songwriter (and producer) of this song is none other than David Foster, committing yet another of his many musical crimes. The lyrics, include the mail-it-in schlock of “I’d do anything for you/You’d do anything for me/We’d do anything for love” and sadly, this part of the song is Gord’s fault. Maybe that’s the best he could come up with when he heard the tune. Fortunately no other songs on the record are directly “Fostered,” although a couple sound like it.

Despite all this disappointment, Gord is too good a musician to miss the board with every dart, and there are a couple of tracks on “East of Midnight” that I really like. “Morning Glory” has a sad resignation about it that sees Gord on the other side of heartache. Gone is his carefree highway and free and easy love. This is a song about the aimless wandering of the heartbroken. It is a reminder that on the road you might be free to go where you want, but you’ve also got a lot of time to be alone with your thoughts, and that’s not always a pleasant experience. The production sucks along with the rest, but the song’s innate prettiness shines through anyway.

The other track I look forward to is “A Passing Ship.” The big empty eighties sound matches passably with the imagery of a ship out alone on a wide ocean. There is nary a saxophone to be found, and the electric guitar has a relaxed feel that at once conveys both motion and an uncertainty of direction. Lightfoot sings about the safe ports that we keep in our hearts through unsteady times:

“When the sea runs high,
Th’ sea runs wild and I’m unsteady,
And I think of you,
In the warmth of your home and family.
When love is true,
There is no truer occupation.
And may this gale
Blow us to the ones we love.”

For these two good songs and some other more nebulous reasons – probably a combination of familiarity and a feeling of accomplishment of discovering this album on my own – I still own this damn record. Unlike “Summer Side of Life” I won’t be parting with it, either.

Best tracks: Morning Glory, A Passing Ship

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