Every Picture Tells a Story
Squirm factor: 2
Jessica says, "How did this guy get to be a singer? He sounds like Abe passing a hard stool." But to quote Jed Bartlet, "Au contraire, mon petit fromage." Rod Stewart is a singer of amazing subtlety and expression - throughout his early career, and occasionally nowadays ("Have I Told You Lately"), he's capable of extracting unexpected emotions from even basic melodies and arrangements. When he's at the top of his game, working with sympathetic musicians, he can transcend mediocre material and transport great material to the heights of rock and roll glory. Take "Seems Like a Long Time": in the hands of most singers this mundane lyric and predictably downward-stepping melody would get tedious. But Stewart's reading - trailing off at the end of verse phrases, the slight melisma in "long long", the weary tone of his voice - is meaningful and absorbing.
Although Stewart is indeed guilty of the crimes against humanity known as "Hot Legs" and "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy", in Every Picture Tells a Story he produced an enduring masterpiece. I'm not sure I agree with Jimmy Guterman that this is the best rock and roll record ever, but it sure is good.
Not only is Rod in fine voice, and paying attention, but the musicians playing with him have worked out a unique style that suits these songs. It's based on acoustic guitars - played open or steel-style - making aggressive noises over an extremely busy rhythm section. Normally busyness in a rhythm section is just plan frustrating, but it works here because it's not virtuosic noodling. Mick Waller's drumming has tons of odd fills in unexpected places, but they're rumbling, slow fills that serve to expand the feel of the beat rather than tighten things up, and Ron Wood's bass playing can best be described as "galumphing" - it's good-natured musical goofing that lends a friendly tone to the record.
Rod really comes through, though, as a songwriter. On paper, "Maggie May" seems like a terrible idea for a song, but when it's bookended with that mandolin line, supported by thrashing hi-hat beats, and delivered by Stewart in a voice that alternately suggests amusement ("you wore me out"), amazement ("I love you anyway"), resentment ("I couldn't have tried anymore"), and pleasure ("one of these days"), it's five of the best minutes I've ever spent listening. Its continuing popularity is a testament to the intermittent good taste of the American public. "Mandolin Wind" doesn't quite match its predecessor for emotional impact, but its melody, consisting of small arcs within a larger arc, shows an understanding for the musical verities, and there's some poetry in the lyrics ("I can rest assured, knowing that we've seen the worst"). "Every Picture Tells a Story" is an extremely strange composition - every line is unresolved in the verse until the last three-note phrase, but those phrases themselves are unresolved in the larger structure until the coda. It's vaguely unsettling. However, the band plays up a storm, particularly Wood, and Rod's voice has a tone of wry nostalgia that few singers even attempt, let alone pull off. This is Sinatra-quality work.
Other items include a Bob Dylan cover that showcases Stewart's dynamic range, working from a near-whisper to the solid singing in the chorus, and a version of "That's All Right" that captures all the energy in Elvis's rendition and throws in a rough slide guitar to drive home the bluesiness in the tune.
When I first started reading critics acclaim Rod Stewart's early career, I was skeptical, as his latest hits at the time included "Love Touch" and "Some Guys Have All the Luck." However, since I picked up Every Picture Tells a Story ten years ago, I've never regretted it. This is a great moment in the history of singing.
Never a Dull Moment
Squirm factor: 4
You just know you're tempting fate with an album title like this. And naturally you get all sorts of clever reviews like Wilson and Alroy's "NOT."
The problem that makes this a good, not great record, lies strictly in the songwriting. Stewart's covers are as good as ever. I think his version of Hendrix's "Angel" might be the finest ever, with a passionate chorus replacing the usual doped-up take. Stewart is a fine Dylan interpreter - their voices share a similar roughness, but Stewart hits all the notes - and it's delicious the way he wrings the title of "Mama, You Been on My Mind" through the scale with a slight quaver at the end of each note. "Twistin' the Night Away" replaces the Twist beat with a pulsing bass and grungy drums, but the smile in Stewart's voice is worth cherishing.
Stewart turns in one fantastic composition, "You Wear It Well", with a catchy ascending verse, a chorus that swells dynamically along with a rise in pitch (very clever), and a lyric that finds its narrator fumbling to express past regrets and ending up with only positive words for his lost love. Otherwise, his songs are completely unmemorable; I've listened to this record dozens of times, and I always have to look at the sleeve to remember which song is which on side one. The tunes are hookless, the lyrics indistinct, and worst of all, Stewart doesn't seem very interested in singing them. Instead of his usual informed, emotional delivery, he just belts them out. In tune, of course, but not engagingly.
So, yeah, I guess there are a couple dull moments, but I'd hate to be so trite as to make that play on words. Instead, let me say plenty of exciting moments, but mostly on the covers.
A Night on the Town
Squirm factor: 2
Something happened to our hero 'round about 1974, and his instinct for homing in on quality material seems to have abandoned him. There are plenty of fine selections on this record, but the utter dross with which they are surrounded makes this an incredibly spotty record.
The high point of the record is, of course, "Tonight's the Night", a majestic ballad chronicling an unscrupulous cad's seduction techniques. I should hate it, but there's something in the complete sincerity with which he sings this, and the gorgeous hook, that pull me in. Not to mention the "hit aura" that some songs have. I would like to know what "let your inhibitions run wild" means, though. If your inhibitions take control, don't you become more reluctant to let Rod have his way, not less?
The other great moment, one of the best in Rod's career, is his cover of Cat Stevens' "The First Cut is the Deepest." The longing he imbues the lyric with, and his remarkable breath control (witness the subtle crescendo on the word "first"), make this one of his finest performances. "The Killing of Georgie" is a song Rod seems inordinately proud of, as he's included it on numerous collections. He thinks it's a progressive song decrying the hate-crime murder of a gay friend, but in the lyrics, Georgie is killed not because he's gay, but because he got caught up in random street crime. Sad, yes, but it doesn't really justify the lengthy song with its two-note melody and backing vocal interludes ripped off of "Walk on the Wild Side."
The record takes a serious nose dive on side two. It seems that Rod's idea of "rocking out" has been reduced to having his guitarist play the same bar-band blues vamp under all the material, whether it's his own "The Balltrap", the zydeco standard "Big Bayou", Hank Williams' "The Wild Side of Life" or Manfred Mann's delicate "Pretty Flamingo." Each of these is a great song when performed with attention to the material, but here it's the same idiotic mush over and over. They even manage to distract from an intriguing mariachi-style horn arrangement on "Pretty Flamingo." Rod's vocals are as insensitive as the band, simply bulldozing through the lyrics with little sympathy or passion.
As long as you don't flip the record over, you'll find a lot to like on side one.
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