Monday, July 11, 2011

album of the day: Dire Straits

Dire Straits were, of course, a seminal post-punk, roots-revival band, at least in the first phase of their history. Their first album was released in 1978, when the top-selling album in the US was the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever. That is to say, Dire Straits came on the scene at the height of, and at the beginning of the end of, disco. Good timing, boys!

It's hard to imagine an album more diametrically opposed to everything disco. Apart from a couple of double-dubbed guitars, every cut on the album is just four instrument tracks and vocals, the basic kit of rock. And unlike punk, Dire Straits obviously featured Mark Knopfler's virtuoso guitar work and odd impressionistic snapshot lyrics.

I didn't know any of that when I bought my first Dire Straits album (in fact, the less well-regarded second album, Communiqué), or even when I went back and bought this one. All I knew was Douglas Adams had recommended them in the only sex scene in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. That's a weird connection, because although the music is gorgeous on this record, it's not what I would call sexy, since a lot of Knopfler's stuff is kinda morose. That probably says more about Douglas Adams than about me.

As for me, I took instant liking to Dire Straits, because I was developing my taste for mopey music back then.

And with the exception of "Southbound Again" and "Setting Me Up" - neither of which is really joyful - this is a pretty damn mopey record. Not everything is a gem, of course. "In the Gallery" is a somewhat heavy-handed criticism of trendy arty types and a lament for the artists and art they ruin. I also have the nerve to think the giant hit "Sultans of Swing" is a tad overwrought - but I read it as moping over how unrewarding and uninspired the pub rock scene can be, especially for true artists yearning to breathe free.

My favorites are, as I've tipped my hand already, the contemplative portrait pieces: "Lions," "Wild West End" and "Down to the Waterline" (despite being uptempo), and, when I can get past the artistic-struggle vibe, "Sultans of Swing." Here's a representative stanza from "Lions":

Church bell clinging on just trying
To get a crowd for Evensong
Nobody cares to depend upon the chime it plays
They're all in the station praying for trains
the Congregation late again
It's getting darker all the time these flagpole days
Drunk old soldier he gave her a fright
He's a crazy lion howling for a fight

(Line breaks, and indeed lyrics, are approximate, as Knopfler was at the time a strict adherent to the mumble-something-approximating-what-you-wrote school of folk-rock singing.) While the song pretty clearly tracks a working woman through her commute home, we get a picture of her somewhat vulnerable, and certainly lonesome, state of mind, by way of atmospheric details - as though the city was the outward expression of her emotional state. And that's just cool.

Something else that really strikes me about this album is Knopfler's range as a musician. I mean, duh, right? He's easily one of the 10 best guitarists in rock music of the era - and for pure musicianship, just out-and-out being able to make his guitar do anything, I'm not sure anyone's better. On Dire Straits he's all over the place - tight grooves, anthemic melody lines, lilting, definitely some weepies - and it's absolutely perfect, not a note out of place, not a note too many or too few.

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