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Music Reviews

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November 24, 1993

Famous Last Words

John MartynJohn Martyn, No Little Boy (Mesa 1993) -- Mesa Records, a little label out of Southern California once known for its progressive jazz releases, has boldly shifted its emphasis to singer/songwriters (often with a folk background) aimed at the jazz/adult contemporary market. Mesa avoids smaltz and over-production, and allows the artists to speak for themselves. This welcome change has resulted in many fine releases from Mesa (including the likeable new albums from Iain Matthews and Richard Barone).

The new disc from John Martyn is the star of the Mesa stable. John has developed a cult following in the last 25 years, and incorporates a variety of acoustic, pop, and blues elements in his music. No Little Boy, which contains revamped versions of some Martyn's best tunes from 1971 through 1977, defies easy comparison; imagine a gentler, kinder (and less gravely-voiced) Tom Waits playing jazz-oriented blues.

On No Little Boy, John is given able assistance from David Gilmour (formerly of Pink Floyd), Levon Helm (formerly of The Band), and Phil Collins (guest harmony vocals). Featured cuts include the introspective "Sweet Little Mystery," and the intriguing "Ways to Cry," an inspired collaboration with Phil Collins that has movie soundtrack written all over it.

No Little Boy is a funky, downbeat-laden collection of tunes in the John Hiatt mode. Give John Martyn a spin for a smooth, nighttime jazz ride.

Al StewartAl Stewart, Famous Last Words (Mesa 1993) -- Famous Last Words is the first studio release in five years from prolific singer-songwriter Al Stewart. Al will be appearing at the Wild Blue this Sunday, December 5, with long-time collaborator Peter White, and his new album provides a pleasant (if not uniquely inspired) preview of the show.

Stewart scaled the pop charts in 1976 with the seminal Year of the Cat, and followed up with the excellent Time Passages. Contrary to impressions, Al no longer lives in his native England, as he moved to Southern California over a decade ago. This change in residence may account for Al's decline in the early 80s, a period in which his songwriting skills slipped sharply.

However, 1988's Last Days of the Century was a dynamite release, blending Al's songwriting with the strong acoustic guitar of Peter White. Famous Last Words continues in the same vein, as Al weaves his trademark, historical, mythical and literary allusions in his tunes. Al has also developed a whimsical streak (one of his favorite bands is They Might be Giants), and this is reflected in songs like "Hipposong," a lighthearted tune that offers a break from his more serious side.

Al's albums often take repeated listenings for full absorption, and Famous Last Words is no exception. Stewart's last Fresno appearance (in June 1992) was a splendid show. Give yourself plenty of time to get to the Blue on December 5 (expect this to be an early show, so plan on arriving not later than 8:00 p.m.).

tropical campfireMichael Nesmith, .".. tropical campfire's ..." (Pacific Arts Audio 1992) -- Pacific Arts Audio is a Southern California record label owned by former Monkee Michael Nesmith. When I called for the new anthology from Michael Nesmith & the First National Band entitled Complete, they also sent me a copy of last year's ".. tropical campfire's ..."

It's hard not to respect the Nez. Having tasted big-time fame, he is now content to watch the wheels go by and release (or produce) an occasional disc. For example, Pacific Arts recently released a wide-open Stratocaster guitar instrumental entitled Return of the Hellcasters.

".. tropical campfire's ..." finds Michael in his familiar quasi-country mode delivering wistful (and sometimes melancholy) tunes. Thus, cuts like "Moon Over the Rio Grande" and "In the Still of the Night" capture Michael's laid-back, but technically refined, spirit. Michael has a devoted corps of followers, and ".. tropical campfire's ..." will be sure to please them.

However, Complete is largely a collector's piece, as it consists of three early 70s releases from the First National Band. While these recordings are of interest to fans, current listeners will find them enjoyable, if somewhat dated, experiments in country music.

Big Seller of the Week -- Common Thread, a fine, if not groundbreaking, collection of tunes originally penned by the Eagles and recorded by a number of today's biggest country acts, shipped gold in its first week of release. Congrats toGiant Records (also the home to country honey Carlene Carter) for this tremendous success.

Don't Cry in Your Coffee -- One recent report says that each CD costs $1.25 to manufacture, package, and ship. We pay $17 per disk; the balance is recoupment of expenses and profit. Nice work, if you can get it.

-- Randy Krbechek

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