Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Al Stewart -- "Year of the Cat" (1976)

Al Stewart's "Year of the Cat" represents a phenomenal landmark for the "soft rock era" where you had the magical combination of a picturesque yet obtuse song alluding to sleeping with an exotic woman in a foreign country, the production wizardry of Alan Parsons (of Project fame), and it was all 100% sap free. "Year of the Cat" was almost a progressive rock song, considering how unlikely it was to be a hit.

I don't know how many times in college I played my acoustic guitar to most of the album, and even got a lot of the "Year of the Cat" solo down. I could do the whole song on piano and from the very first Cmaj7 D Em chords, anybody within earshot knew exactly what I was playing.

Like Seals & Crofts, it took quite a while for Al Stewart to be a household name. He was a mere folk/rock singer with some passable early albums that barely registered anywhere outside the US. His first US album, Past Present & Future, had the cult folk song "Nostradamus," a lengthy retelling of the famous seer's predictions. Stewart hooked up with Parsons for Modern Times, which featured slicker pop production values and brought a little more attention.

But then Parsons really cranked it up and went wild for Year of the Cat, in very much the same elaborate production he devoted to The Alan Parsons Project, and his work for Ambrosia (Somewhere I've Never Traveled), John Miles (Rebel), and Pilot ("Magic"). He hired the finest UK studio musicians and gave Stewart's songs more creative, cinematic arrangements to fit the highly literate stories of historical sweep ("Lord Grenville," "On The Border") and dramatic scenarios ("Broadway Hotel," "One Stage Before").

Stewart was a pioneer of the "singing/talking style," it was a combination of both, with a very distinct English accent. The singing took a back seat to the songs themselves and the remarkable production and arrangement Parsons gave them.

I'd say that "Year of the Cat" was one of the most literate pop hits of the 70's.

On a morning from a Bogart movie
In a country where they turn back time
You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre
Contemplating a crime.

She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running
Like a watercolour in the rain
Don't bother asking for explanations
She'll just tell you that she came
In the year of the cat.

She doesn't give you time for questions
As she locks up your arm in hers
And you follow 'till your sense of which direction
Completely disappears.

By the blue tiled walls near the market stalls
There's a hidden door she leads you to
These days, she says, I feel my life
Just like a river running through
The year of the cat.

Stewart's musical and writing partner was acoustic guitarist Peter White, who sort of belong to that old Jim Croce tradition of the singer/songwriter having a brilliant accompanist. White's trademark picking and melodic solos truly lifted the material.

"Year of the Cat" was an epic album closer, and unlikely for a hit single because of its length and intellectual lyrics. You definitely could not dance to this mid-tempo number. As always when I look back, you couldn't hear anything anywhere like this song, with its carefully orchestrated sax, acoustic and electric guitar solos, all stretched out to a six-minute classic. The fact that the album is still in print is a testimony to its connection with listeners.

The video below is Stewart and band doing a live version of "Year of the Cat" from the great German music variety series "Musikladen." The pianist does a longer, more showy intro than the record. What's notable is that this must have been after the band had been performing on the show for a while, so they're already worked up when they launch into it.


Anonymous said...

just heard him perform tonight, what a wonderful entertainer. he is engaging, whitty and still has the trademark vocals. the guitarist that plays with him is amazingly talented.

Anonymous said...

You're so right. I was blessed to see Al Stewart several times in the 70s and 80s. My favorite evenings with him were those during which he played in small venues in suburban Philadelphia, once with Peter Wood and the other with Peter White. The larger band was also good during the Year of the Cat touring time, but those intimate concerts featured the most incredible musicianship, as well as the marvelous storytelling for which Al is justly famous. I had discovered him before Year of the Cat, when our Philadelphia radio station played his earlier folk albums. He's one of the few artists who remained listenable in a more commercial set of arrangements. His gift for capturing historic moments remains undiminished. The original article was so similar to my experiences. My only tiny correction: Stewart has a Scots, rather than an English, accent; he was born in Glasgow, but later moved with his widowed mother to Dorset. Come to think of it, his accent is probably more a hybrid.

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