Thursday, July 6, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1025: Mark Knopfler

From a review of the Shangri-Las to an artist who once released an album called “Shangri-La.” A mystical connection through the chaos, or just my brain making random connections to create a sense of order? And which of those would be less foreboding?

Disc 1025 is…Tracker
Artist: Mark Knopfler

Year of Release: 2015

What’s up with the Cover? Mr. Knopfler stands with his back to us, looking across a field. The shot implies he’s searching for something, but the hand on his hip further suggests he’s frustrated and not finding it. Maybe he needs…a tracker. Get it? Get it?

Man, I crack myself up.

How I Came To Know It: Mark is one of those artists that has earned a pass. He puts out a new album and I buy it. That’s what happened here.

How It Stacks Up:  Not counting his many duet projects, Knopfler has eight solo albums, and I have all of them. Of those eight, “Tracker” comes in sixth, narrowly displacing “Ragpicker’s Dream” for the dubious honour of third-last. Since this is the last of my Mark Knopfler solo reviews, here’s a recap:

  1. Golden Heart: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 448)
  2. Sailing to Philadelphia: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 136)
  3. Privateering: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 748)
  4. Shangri-La: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 740)
  5. Get Lucky: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 129)
  6. Tracker: 2 stars (reviewed right here)
  7. The Ragpicker’s Dream: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 128)
  8. Kill to Get Crimson: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 836)

Ratings: 2 stars but almost 3

First impressions are important, and Mark Knopfler’s eighth solo album “Tracker” struggles to overcome a bad one. By the end, it has mostly succeeded, but it’s a shame it takes so long getting there.

“Tracker” opens slow and not in a pleasant languorous kind of way. “Laughs and Jokes and Drinks and Smokes” is supposed to feel collegial and welcoming, but instead it feels dated and hokey and - like its title - too long. The song that follows (“Basil”) doesn’t do much better. So often Knopfler’s character studies are insightful and heartfelt, but these first two songs feel like pale imitations of his earlier work.

River Towns” is better; a song that is half rolling sea shanty, half tavern tale. It would have been helped by Knopfler wrapping it up about two minutes sooner (coincidentally around the time the annoying eighties saxophone starts drifting into the mix).

The sax work on “River Towns” had me wishing the part had instead been played by Knopfler on guitar. Knopfler is the world’s greatest contemporary guitar player, and the beginning of “Tracker” suffers for his seeming refusal to show that talent off. Early on he seems more interested in delivering a mix of lounge jazz and the old people version of R&B.

Then just when I was going to pack it in, Knopfler seems to wake up from whatever reverie he’s been in. Eight tracks in on “Lights of Taormina” he starts dropping gorgeous, rich guitar licks, and turning phrases so complicated and cleverly resolved it had me thinking of mid-seventies Dylan.

This is followed by the wistful and mysterious “Silver Eagle” and then a character study worth tipping your ear toward, in “Beryl” where Knopfler also channels some guitar reminiscent of early Dire Straits.

The run of excellence continues into “Wherever I Go,” a duet featuring the sublime vocal of Wailin’ Jenny Ruth Moody. It is hard to go wrong when Moody is singing a song, and her full and pure tone is the perfect match to the big, rounded sound of Knopfler’s guitar. Even his vocals are hitting their stride at this point. I didn’t even mind when the saxophone kicked in; it just felt like a good episode of “Moonlighting” at that point.

This is the last “official” song on the record, and if it ended there it would have ended on a high note. Instead, there are four “bonus” tracks (I’m not sure what that means – I guess it is an attempt to get people to buy the CD version). This raises the total number of songs to 15 and bumps the total playing time to a horribly bloated 74 minutes. Just like that the record goes from committing a simple misdemeanor (“one too many songs”) to a capital crime (“way too goddamn long”).

I’d be tempted to say he should have just cut those bonus tracks, but that should have happened earlier. Also, some of the bonus tracks are the better songs on the album. “My Heart Has Never Changed” is an anthem for every busted hearted bloke within ear-shot. “Heart of Oak” is a simple acoustic number that sounds so timeless you’re sure it was written in the fifteenth century, even though it is actually a Knopfler original. It also showcases some of the finest finger picking you will ever hear in this or any other century.

This disc is wildly uneven. It has enough good content to rate it three stars if it weren’t for how interminably long it is. Instead, I’m going to hold it just shy of the mark as punishment for making me wait so long for all the good stuff.

Best tracks: River Towns, Lights of Taormina, Silver Eagle, Beryl, Wherever I Go, My Heart Has Never Changed, Heart of Oak

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