What does it sound like?:
This is a four disc set. It consists of the remastered original album plus one newly mixed and mastered outtake on CD One, a 1976 full band concert from Seattle in Autumn 1976 on CDs Two and Three and a fourth disc: a DVD containing 24/96 audio of the album in both stereo and 5.1 Surround Sound. The whole project is overseen by original album producer Alan Parsons, who himself prepared the brand new surround mix. I expect this surround mix to be the highlight of the set, although I should point out that I have not heard it as I was only given access to MP3s of the three CDs. The set retails at about 50 quid, which is too expensive in my humble old opinion.
I first saw Al Stewart at Kingston Polytechnic in summer 1972. He was performing solo at the time and previewing new songs from his then forthcoming fifth LP Past, Present and Future. He was very good indeed and it was evident that this was near the end of his old folky days – the new songs were cut from a very different cloth. Both Nostradamus and Roads To Moscow were previewed that night. Al was blossoming into a mature performer and songwriter. The albums he would go on to release in the rest of the decade would be both sophisticated and ambitious. He is a charming, articulate and engaging personality, both on and off stage. I have heard that his singing voice is an acquired taste, but I like it a great deal.
The album that followed Past, Present and Future was the first of three consecutive records to be produced by Abbey Road veteran Alan Parsons. It is called Modern Times and remains my favourite Al Stewart recording to this day. Five songs from the album appear in the concert recording released here with Year Of The Cat. Anyway, sales were good but not earth shattering so Al and Alan resolved to make a stab at the lucrative American market. They succeeded. Recorded largely at Abbey Road in the heatwave summer of 1976 and released later that year; a combination of British and American musicians, a radio friendly glossy sheen and a series of lengthy American tours eventually rocketed both album and single to huge sales in early 1977. I imagine Al Stewart s still living off the royalties even now.
It is actually quite hard to find fault with the Year Of The Cat album. Elegant gatefold cover by Hipgnosis, beautifully played and recorded, well mixed and sequenced; did I mention the great tunes? Tim Renwick, Peter Wood and Peter White excel on the solos and the guys from Cockney Rebel provide a sterling rhythm section. Moreover, the songs are intriguing – Bogart movies, WW1 flying aces, reincarnation, sea battles, the Spanish Civil War, fine wines, hotel dalliances, theatre ghosts, Tony Hancock.
I suppose this isn’t my favourite Al Stewart album just because it sounds so perfect it irks the purist in me. Oh well.
You may have noticed by now that Al Stewart has a bit of a historical leaning. Actually, it’s not donnish stuff. Al has no degrees or further education. He’s entirely self-taught. I suspect the only lessons he’s had since leaving school would be the half dozen guitar tutorials he had with Robert Fripp in the mid-sixties. Fripp alleges that Al ignored everything he taught him anyway.
The MP3s of the original album sound just fine, but then the first pressing vinyl and 2 or 3 CD versions I own also sound great, so have no worries about sound quality.
However, the Seattle concert is no more than quite good sound quality in my opinion. The vocal is very much in the foreground and the bass and drums sound quite distant. To my ears this sounds like a stage mix soundboard tape; there is no evidence of a multi-track recording. The main album is beautifully mixed and layered but not so the Seattle show. However, Al’s spoken introductions to both Year Of The Cat and On The Border do an excellent job of explaining what the songs are about. It’s an enjoyable listen but probably not one I will repeat very often.
Year Of The Cat would be an excellent introduction to Al Stewart, but then again so would Modern Times, 24 Carrots/Parrots or even Famous Last Words. In fact, he’s never made a bad album.
I will be saving up to buy this just to hear the new surround mix.
I’ll end this review with a mondegreen. For many years I thought the opening line from the song Year Of The Cat was “In a country Worthington back town.” It puzzled me for ages until I bothered to read the lyrics printed on the inner sleeve…
What does it all *mean*?
Fine music, like fine wine, matures with time.
Goes well with…
A 1953 Margaux
26th March 2021
Might suit people who like…
Great song writing and impeccable production values. Historians and readers. Or even prog rockers. Al Stewart has a mysterious secondary maket among prog fans. Maybe it’s the guitar solos?