Thursday, 19 August 2010

Scott Walker - 5 Easy Pieces

If like me you tend to get periods when you're obsessed with a particular group or artist, you could do a lot worse than put Scott Walker on heavy rotate. This highly ironically titled 5 cd themed career retrospective released in 2003 is now hard to get hold of, and is anything but "Easy". It remains a consummate overview of the many splendoured thing that is the journey of Noel Scott Engel. The man has covered everything from crooning ballads to love songs to Northern European minimalism to film music to out and out strangeness, and having the weird distinction of featuring a side of pork as a rhythm instrument on the extremely dense and almost impenetrable 2005 cd The Drift, this man is a minefield of musical complexity unlike any other.

Starting off in the mid sixties as a teenybop pin up with the Walker Brothers, by 1967 he had had enough and went solo. In under two and a half years he had released the now legendary four numbered albums (Peter Gabriel was obviously a fan) which by the final LP of the quartet saw him writing his own strangely oblique strategies still backed by lush string arrangements.
Attempts at reforming the Walker Brothers came and went in the 70s, stranger and oddly normal solo albums appeared up to 1995's dark and uncompromising Tilt, the last album before this compilation.

This winding journey through his output covers all bases from The Walker Brothers up to Tilt and is a compelling beast of a thing. Be prepared to be wooed, and then intellectually challenged, sometimes within the space of the same song!

Each cd follows a theme -
CD1 "In My Room - The complete bedsit dramas including the kitchen sink"
In which Scott ruminates on the nature of life, love, and the universe "from a fire escape in the sky". There are some wonderful songs on this including the marvellous Montague Terrace (In Blue), surely the template for Marc Almond's career. It's hard to pick out the best ones here, as they are all great songs, but a standout is the idiosyncratic vocal in the form of smokily cracked tones which croak all over Time Operator, a blues to the woman intoning the Speaking Clock. Odd but it works.

CD2 "Where's The Girl? - Songs of a Lady, Love & Loss"
If you're not a fan of his early schmaltzy love songs, skip tracks 2 to 7 after the first listen, otherwise by track 8 , the swoonsome "Joanna" (written by UK pair Trent & Hatch, whom most folks in the UK remember solely for writing the theme tune to the unmissed 60s/70s soap Crossroads) you'll be thinking for gawd's sake get over it man! On his early albums the schmaltzy tunes work well, as they don't follow one another. This is perhaps the only cd of the 5 where the mostly chronological ordering does not work so well.
As we go past the early years the songs become less obvious and more complete. The cd ends with two songs written for German cabaret songstress Ute Lemper, a sort of modern day Marlene Dietrich. These songs are very odd but strangely compelling pieces of work.

CD3 "An American In Europe - Home and away: songs from Europe & America"
Although born in America, SW found success in Europe initially and because of his German-Jewish parentage was always Eurocentric in outlook. In the early part of his solo career he indulged in a passion for the songs of French composer Jacques Brel, and indeed on his first solo album he must have delighted his record company with his cover of Amsterdam with its references to prostitutes and the darker side of night life in the Dutch capital. Remember, at the time of his first solo LP in 1967 he was still seen as a teen idol!
The first 9 of 21 songs on this cd are SW's suitably dramatic interpretations Brel's work. My favourite is If You Go Away, with its numerous false endings - or could they be beginnings? Following these we have his mainly self-penned canon taking him across Europe and back to the land of his birth, all the while growing more intense.

CD4 "This Is how You Disappear - The darkest hour is just before dawn: 15 big hits"
Another ironic non-sequitur from the compiler - 15 Big Hits indeedy!
Right - now it gets weird. imagine the works of Jean Paul Satre set to music and you've some idea of how this comes across. The cd starts with a single b-side "The Plague" which is possibly what Tom Jones might have sounded like if he had been an angst ridden intellectual. As the cd progresses through the years the existentialist jungle gets thicker, until by the time we arrive at the final two tracks from 1995's Tilt we have hacked our way through the undergrowth and arrived at a kind of Mordor of the soul. I kid you not! The best part of this cd are the 4 SW penned tracks from The Walker Brothers reunion LP of 1978, Nite Flites, in particular The Electrician, which defies description - just go listen to it.

CD5 "Scott On Screen - Music from and for films"
Mostly culled from the soundtrack to an obscure French art house movie Pola X, but with added extras such as The Walker Brothers recorded Deadlier Than The Male, SW's version of Dylan's I Threw It All Away from Bond movie The World Is Not Enough, and others. Scott's cinematic scope is a natural tie in with movies, and as a themed cd this works very well.

This box set is all you need to know about the thinking man's crooner, but for the more faint of heart, try the single cd "Boy Child - The Best Of 1967-1970" which does exactly what it says on the tin.

2019, the insanity grows...

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