Monday, 25 May 2015

Dire Straits: Live/Solo/Compilation Albums Part Two 2001-2014




David Knopfler "Wishbones"
(Edel, '2001')
A Clear Day (St Swithin's Day)/King Of Ashes/Arcadie/Means Of Survival/Jericho/Karla Faye/The Bones//The Snowscape Paperweight Girl/If God Could Make The Angels/Genius/Nothing At All/May You Never/Shadowlands/A Clear Day (St Swithin's Day) (Unplugged Version)
"You bleed for the bait life feeds you, but you still want to swallow whole"
David's third overtly acoustic album is another strong effort, improving on the patchiness of 'Small Mercies' without quite matching the strength of 'The Giver'. Another heartfelt autobiographical record with a slight religious bent, 'Wishbones' is the first album to be released after Mark's debut solo record 'Golden Heart' but it's this record that sounds like the work of an 'older' brother: maturer, wiser, less likely to fall into the traps of country music. Once more the emphasis is on poetic, Dylanesque tales of emotional fragility and what being a human in the modern world means, with the clipped folkier style particularly pronounced on this record (don't be fooled by the 'unplugged' recording stapled on the end - almost all these songs are 'unplugged'!) The biggest downfall remains the melodies - there's nothing quite as memorable as 'The Giver' here, with little that stays in your mind after the record has finished. Still if you can read this album as well as hear it then there's much to admire and allow to 'seep' in to your consciousness over repeated listenings. There are many highlights, including 'St Swithun's Day' (about the date, 15th July, when the ancient flood is thought to have started and it duly rains emotionally for 40 days and 40 nights in the song); the delicate 'King Of Ashes' where 'they will not play my tunes, melodies in rented rooms'; the clever song 'The Bones' which starts like a historical grave looting but ends up becoming a present day tale of the mafia; 'If God Made The Angels' which has the loveliest tune on the album asking whether God really did make man - and if so why he made him so flawed compared to the 'angels'. David Knopfler is clearly onto a good thing in this part of his career and I'm pleased to say this album seems to be his most readily available, helped by some strong reviews and a slightly bigger record label than the usual independents he'd worked with so far. Probably his second best album.

or
Mademoiselle Will Decide (Mark Knopfleer with Jools Holland, 'Big Band Small World')
                                                                      
Mark Knopfler "A Shot At Glory (Soundtrack Album)"
(Mercury, April 2002)
Sons Of Scotland/Hard Cases/He's The Man/Training/The New Laird/Say Too Much/Four In A Row/All That I Have In The World/Sons Of Scotland - Quiet Theme/It's Over/Wild Mountain Thyme
"Has to be done to be number one, when the going gets down he'll turn it around"
Many wondered how long Mark might carry on writing scores, with many people wondering whether he might make it his 'day job' (most of these soundtrack albums were better received than the 'proper' albums, even if not all of them sold that well). However 'A Shot At Glory' is, to date, the last of Mark's movie projects and to some extent sees him come full circle with his first overtly Scottish score since his first film 'Local Hero'. A comedy about football and a 'loose' fictional account of the life of Ally McCoist, it would have appealed to Knopfler not for the sport (he's more of a motor-racing man) but the triumph of underdog team Kilnockie as they fight through to a surprise Scottish cup final. Thankfully this final bow seems to have taken his full attention for once, for  after the half-hearted filled-out scores for 'Metroland' and 'Wag The Dog' this one is full length with 37 minutes of pure Knopfler, with just a new arrangement for old traditional song 'Wild Mountain Thyme' (as recorded by The Byrds in 1966) not directly written by the guitarist.
There's even  a series of actual bona fide songs: Firstly 'He's The Man', in addition to the instrumental tracks and while not up to his 'proper' solo work of the period it's his best 'film' song since 'Last Exit To Brooklyn'. A 'Boom, Like That' style folky pop song it features some of the most banal lyrics in Mark's canon ('He's the man! What he's got other have not!') but a nicely rocking tune and a praise for the underdog that's suited to his canon. Secondly, 'Say Too Much' is less interesting, being repetitive jazz/music hall glitter of just one short verse, but even this has a compellingly smoke-filled club vibe that's pleasing on the ears. Thirdly and lastly, 'All That I Have In The World' is an atmospheric ballad with a country twinge that's far too good to be wasted on such a minor work, Knopfler begging a girl not to go with the centuries-old traditions of the Highlands backing him.
The film score, like the film itself, is pretty but not very witty, and you soon find yourself sighing in longing for some variety in both halves, as it were. 'Sons Of Scotland' is a lovely traditional sounding song that would have fitted nicely onto 'Local Hero', 'Hard Cases' features the first use of bagpipes on a Dire Straits-related song and yet despite the restrictions of having just five notes and a drone to play with is still audibly a Knopfler melody; a whole strsoing of songs beginning with  'Training' are all accordion led-Morris dances which work well in the film but stretch your patience to breaking point on an album and 'It's Over' is shrill and unlikeable fun with synths. Another mixed bag in other words and this score lacks the sense of scale and beauty of 'Local Hero', sounding more like a shortbread tin's idea of Scotland than the real thing captured by chance fifteen years earlier. However the score is a major improvement on the last handful and it's clear more time energy and money have been spent on it: Knopfler sounds fully engaged with the film instead of writing what he can of the score whilst knowing he has other bigger projects to attend to and the attention to detail shows in the pleasingly large collection of Scottish musicians and the three 'songs' which work better in the film than any 'end title' would. All in all the film score industry was a useful learning ground for Knopfler - he didn't always get everything right and tended to go for works in a purely cinematic sense rather than what would work on the LP, but the discipline of working to set timings and trying to convey an emotion through music was good for him and of major benefit to his solo album work. What's more Knopfler remained throughout subtle rather than overblown, tugging at the listener's sleeve to point them in an emotional direction rather than showering them with artificial feeling as so many lesser film and TV composers do. These film soundtracks represent mark's own shot at glory and even if his 'goals' all came at the beginning, when Dire Straits was still a big name, they remain successful and likeable enough a franchise to make it worth your time digging them out.

Mark Knopfler "The Ragpicker's Dream"
(Mercury,  September 2002)
Why Aye Man/Devil Baby/Hill Farmer's Blues/A Place Where We Used To Live/Quality Shoe/Fare Thee Well Northumberland/Marbletown/You Don't Know You're Born/Coyote/The Ragpicker's Dream/Daddy's Gone To Knoxville/Old Pigweed
Bonus Live Disc: Why Aye Man/Quality Shoe/Sailing To Philadelphia/Brothers In Arms plus Why Aye Man (Video Promo)
"Everything is gone - but my heart is hanging on"
Realising that 'Sailing To Philadelphia's most successful moments had all tended to be the songs about working class families down on their luck, Mark turned to making a full album about the subject. Everything we said about 'Philadelphia' is double here: this is an album filled with images not of mist-covered mountains and Romeo and Juliet but inside toilets, allotments, bunk beds and empty kitchens. Even compared to it's predecessor 'Ragpickers' sounds like a film noir album, shot in black and white (and does indeed have a monochrome shot of a couple kissing on the front cover). 'It was tough back in them 'ol' days' Mark seems to be saying throughout, 'not like them 1980s with them microwave ovens and them MTVs', the old grump in the corner who still can't quite believe how successful he's become. To be honest, after writing about so many spoilt superstars (why do the initials C S N and Y suddenly come to mind?!) it's a relief to hear such a grounded response to mega-stardom. Even the album's CD booklet comes with a picture of Mark not as rock God or aging hero but as a simple musician in a basic anorak, hauling his own guitar behind him as he sets off to another gig in the rain (tellingly most of the other album pictures are of cobbled streets and dingy alleyways, both common sights in the North of England even today - or is that just where I live?!)
Given all the things I said on the last review I should be pleased - and I was when I heard this album was being made this way. However there's something slightly relentless about this album which can't resist adding in extra detail about how poor everyone is - for half an album that's a clever bit of colouring, but when it happens on every flipping song you start to get more than a little bored. Also, whereas 'Philadelphia' was all about how the poverty stricken beginnings didn't prevent the character's chances to dream, 'Ragpickers' seems to delight in simply making things as difficult for its characters as possible, with only occasional  moments of fleeting joy. Arguably that makes it a more realistic experience of life growing up in a Northern industrial town in the first half of the 20th century - but that also makes it less interesting as an album. Which is not to say that this album is worthless: when this album 'works' (as per the classy 'Marbletown', which is a long-awaited sequel to 'The Man's Too Strong', the spooky traditional styled ballad 'Fare Thee Well Northumberland' and the extraordinary nasty sideswipe 'You Don't Know You're Born') it works all too well, Knopfler finally finding a comfortable fit for his muse and conscience that doesn't involve him rocking out in stadiums but growing old gracefully. This is, in a sense, Mark's own 'Ragpicker's Dream' where he gets respect and a comfortable amount to live off but none of the ridiculous pressure of the past couple of decades. However this shying away from fame didn't stop him providing album single 'Why Aye Man' to the much-publicised reunion of the 'Auf Wiedersen Pet' cast where it's sense of Geordies overcoming everything with a smile was spot-on (and Mark's highest profile gig since 'On Every Street' a decade before).
interestingly of all of Mark's solo works it's this one that comes closest to the 'spirit' of Dire Straits' classic debut record - that sense of injustice gnawing away at the narrator, keeping him up at night and driving him to distraction; it's just the sound and texture that's so different (everything is acoustic here, instead of just most of it as per the last two albums, with Mark falling even further into the role of 'folk storyteller', with the exception of the electric 'You Don't Know You're Born', which is 'Where Do You Think You're Going?' off the 'Communiqué' album part two). There's no doubt all sorts of reasons for this change: the slight down-turn in economic world growth around the millennium, the sense of empires crumbling in a post 9/11 world or even the nostalgic boom for all things 40s and 50s going on (Mark's childhood and teenage years). However it seems that the move to America as heard on 'Philadelphia' has made Mark even more nostalgic for home and with two new daughters born to third wife Kitty may have felt it even more important to pass on his 'roots' to them. It's possible too, without wanting to dig up too information, that someone close to Mark died in this period: there's a scrawled 'RIP' message on the front cover wall that I can't quite make out (but could be 'pops') - did the death of a parent (and possibly a visit home for a funeral) set Mark off thinking about his past? As a result this is Mark's most 'Newcastle' album, full of references to places, people and things that he still remembers, even though 'Ragpickers' was recorded in absentia in America. Or at least most of the album does: 'Coyote' is a sly nod of the head to the 'American' depiction of suffering and misery usually produced in technicolour and actually offers a sympathetic arm of support to Wile E Coyote, star of the 'Road Runner' Looney Tunes cartoons  (the quirkiest Knopfler song for some time, it even sounds like it was recorded on a broken down synthesiser bought from ACME!)
So, were does 'Rapicker's Dream' sit in the pantheon of Knopfler solo albums? Somewhere about the middle I'd say. It's not as satisfyingly whole as 'Sailing To Philadelphia', whilst having more memorable moments than 'Golden Heart' (similarly compared to the albums to come it's a notch behind 'Get Lucky', a little ahead of 'Shangri-La' and about equal with 'Privateering'). It's another good and often fascinating album, though it has to be said there are many songs here that are woefully maudlin and a struggle to listen to: tracks like the retro 'Hill Farmer's Blues', the jazzy 'A Place We Used To Live' and the title track itself, a slow waltz that stays long past it's welcome. While I understand that Knopfler has to age - and that this ageing has largely suited him - he didn't have to sound quite this old quite this fast. Still, seen in the context of the album's better songs these are forgivable lapses and another important stepping stone into Mark Knopfler's journey of self-discovery.
Note: This CD was initially released as a 'limited edition' two-disc version with live recordings of two album songs taped at London's Shepherd's Bush and two oldies taped at Massey Hall, Canada, including a so-so 'Sailing To Philadelphia' and a gorgeous simpler re-arrangement of 'Brothers In Arms' , plus the video plugging single 'Why Aye Man'.
'Why Aye Man' is a pulsating acoustic pop-rocker that sounds as if it was written specifically for the 'Auf Wiedersen Pet' series (or if it wasn't then it was certainly highly modified). That's actor-turned-singer Jimmy Nail on backing vocals, perhaps wondering why he wasn't asked to write the new song himself. The tale of a group of builders off to Germany to stave off unemployment and misery ('We had the back of Maggie's hand' and Dylan referencing  'Ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm', a rare specific Knopfler political mention, although in this case it's more because there's no work than because she's an unfit leader - although of course a fit leader wouldn't have killed off all the jobs in the first place) brings out the broadest Geordie accent Knopfler had sported in years.  Knopfler keeps things personal by relating more to the theme of missing Newcastle, the part of the song that works best, although unless there's a part of his youth where he worked as a builder I didn't know about it makes sense this is just a 'story'. The result is fun but slightly artificial sounding, with a disappointingly poor rocky feel for a former guitar hero. Translation for none-English speaking readers: 'Well yes mate!'
'Devil Baby' sounds like Mark sitting in his local pub, catching up on all the gossip. 'It's hard to find love anywhere' sighs an un-named friend, before pointing out a local professor chatting up a girl at the bar ('If he can't clean a midway nobody can') and a chap called 'Springer' keeping the pub wrapped in one of his tall stories. Knopfler sounds deeply nostalgic and provides a lovely warm vocal and some of the album's best guitar work, but a bit more story and a bit less gossip would have been nice.
'Hill Farmer's Blues' is another atmospheric song where not much happens, ful of lines about going in t'town and the dogs barking their heads off at the back door. If Hovis ever do another bread advert this will be a shoe-in for the soundtrack of them good 'ol days when the narrator was nobbut a lad (even though the famous 'Yorkshire' advert was actually filmed down South in Dorset!)
'A Place Where We Used To Live' is the weakest song on the album: it's just too unrelentingly bleak, full of clichéd images of an empty house about to be sold that's full of memories (is it the family home Knopfler's come back to help with after a death in the family?) Played as folk it could have been nice - turned into a blues song with backing girl singers it all sounds a bit false and OTT.
'Quality Shoe' is a bouncy song where the metaphor about patching up your shoes is a good means for getting on in life - or something (perhaps Mark also worked as a shoe-seller before finding work as a teacher?) The narrator scoffs at the idea of 'prancing in a top hat' but admits that he might do some 'dancing' in them. Hmm.
Luckily 'Fare Thee Northumberland' rescues the album, a song that I would quite happily have believed was an old standard had I not read the writing credit on the back. Knopfler captures the feel of a standard folk song's lengthy phrases and slow-moving chords nicely, sounding not unlike Pentangle in the process, while yet again he bids a teary 'goodbye' to his 'beloved Tyne' - is this another song about a quick visit home? The 'roll on Geordie boy, roll home' chorus is easily the best of all Mark's dabblings with jazz.
'Marbletown' is even better, a quick-picking acoustic song about an accident down an old road. Knopfler's narrator is the first man on the scene, crying for help ('We got a man down here!') and thinking that it could have been, wondering how it might be for his legacy to read that he 'died' in 'Marbletown'. Mark's guitar playing is exceptional and this rare chance to hear him play solo is first-class: if only his solo albums had featured more songs played alone like this it would do his reputation no end of good!
'You Don't Know You're Born' is a third exceptional song in a row. A pulsating, quietly rocky song with an intense drum beat and some nice plucked synthesiser from guest Guy Fletcher, it features using his menacing voice again as he turns on either the modern generation ('You don't know about the hammer or the farm!') or perhaps even himself, making a living out of recording the misery of his parents' generation ('You only know the kitchen and the warm'). Either way there's just the right shade of menace on this song, which suddenly blooms into full-blown beauty three minutes into the song when the key suddenly changes, the harmonies soar instead of chopping away at the song and Knopfler turns in another exquisite nylon string guitar solo, all poise and grace. It's easily the highlight of the album and a candidate for the strongest Knopfler recording of the decade.
'Coyote' is fun and a novel attempt at trying something different, which is either a joke about empathising with a cartoon (if you happen to get the references) or another song about the under-dog if you don't. 'Don't let a little road dust put you off' sighs Mark as yet another overly elaborate scheme goes wrong and leaves a coyote-shaped hole in some rock somewhere out in the desert. Mark sings as the 'Road Runner', which puts quite a different spin on his apparent sympathy (if he's too sympathetic and slows down he'll get eaten), with him making sure he still runs enough to be 'a speck of dust on your horizon, getting smaller fast'. However while the lyrics are fun the melody is rather bland and features an irritating bah-de-bah-doo-dah horn part that really doesn't fit (perhaps the Coyote's playing a bird hypnotising instrument?!)
'The Ragpicker's Dream' is something of an anti-climax after so much energy, a listless folk-blues which is sweet enough on its own terms but woefully slow in context and back to the cliched lyrics of the first half, full of memories of 'Jack Frost' , children 'aglow at the table' (why? Has Newcastle gone radioactive or something?) and coffee always on the boil. All we need is a dead dog and we'd have the full set.
'Daddy's Gone To Knoxville' is a song that Johnny Cash should have done: it has his fingerprints all over it: guilt and remorse, check; a father going to prison - you betcha; a country style backing - of course. However even The Man in Black would have thought twice about giving such a sad song (He'll never see his children again! The narrator owes money, which presumably means his family are destitute and he can no longer provide for them!) such a bouncy arrangement so at odds with the sentiments. It's the kind of faux-country-blues you usually see every week on Jool's Holland's show.
Album closer 'Old Pigweed' is better, with Knopfler playing the part of a proud allotment keeper. This song features some great lines ('You won't find self-improvement or philosophy in a dumpster sitting by the kitchen door!') but is far too silly to be the closing song this album needs (yes that's right - the chorus really did run 'Who put old pigweed in the Mulligan stew' - here's betting none of you saw that line coming when you were rocking out to 'Money For Nothing' all those years ago).
Overall, then, 'Ragpicker's Dream' is often as threadbare as the clothes the poverty-stricken clothes the characters all seem to wear and it's a deeply inconsistent album, wavering between sensitive portrayal and clichéd hackwork from track to track. However the idea of Mark returning 'home' in a spiritual sense (perhaps to make up for not being there geographically) is a good one that inspires several great ideas and the three-track run in the middle of the album may well be the best three-song-sequence of his solo career to date. As the moral of the album seems to suggest, good things come to those who are patient enough to sit out their time and look for them - which is true of fans who hear this album enough times to separate the wheat from the chaff.


                                                                                         
Mark Knopfler "Shangri La"
(Mercury, September 2004)
5:15 AM/Boom Like That/Sucker Row/The Trawlerman's Song/Back To Tupelo/Our Shangri-La/Everybody Pays/Song For Sonny Liston/Whoop De Doo/Postcards From Paraguay/All That Matters/Stand-Up Guy/Donegan's Gone/Don't Crash The Ambulance
"Nobody's driving me underground - not yet anyway"
By now fans were getting to realise the Mark Knopfler solo catalogue was a bit of a fruit machine, with fans never quite sure what they're going to get: poignant autobiography, winsome traditional poverty-ridden folk or novelty songs about looney tunes characters. There's also the same complete mixture of songs that are powerful moving songs the equal of anything he did with his parent band - and over-wrought filler the band would have laughed out of the stadium. This fourth 'proper' solo album is no different and in many ways the most uneven the lot, with some truly sublime moments and an awful lot of head-scratching. Perhaps that's why Mark has decided on the weird album cover, which really is a fruit machine by the way!
One thing I do love about this album is the fact that it continues the theme hinted at in 'Philadelphia' and 'Ragpicker's and which can be heard as far back as the first album: the theme of home. The title is of course a phrase used to mean the 'perfect' home - and by association the perfect family life. Knopfler is by now happily married and on his second lot of kids and clearly enjoying his new life in America and while his Geordie 'roots' are still on show (notably on album single 'Boom, Like That') this is a much more contented and peaceful album than it's two rather troubled predecessors. Although there still a lot of 'character' songs going through their share of problems, it almost seems as if Knopfler is looking for trouble to write about rather than experiencing or remembering it first hand. As a result I'm rather reminded of 'Communique' - this album works best when it simply lies back and accepts the time is a happy one, but conscientious soul that he is Knopfler doesn't always allow himself to be 'happy' when so many other people are miserable.
The contentment of this album was actually quite a surprise when we heard it. Knopfler had made the news in 2003 not for anything musical but for a horrific accident when touring in Belgravia when Mark's motorbike ran into another car. Mark suffered awful injuries (broken collarbone, shoulderblade and several ribs) and the 'Ragpickers tour' - which was just getting going and bringing Mark's best reviews in 17 years or so for his natural instinctive acoustic playing and successful  re-working of old friends - was cancelled, the first time this had ever happened to the ever professional Knopfler. What's worse, Mark's injuries meant he found it painful to play the guitar so a follow-up looked like it would be heavily delayed - instead Mark got round the problem by playing simpler shorter solos this time around and actually bounced back with a full new record in two years - his quickest 'sequel' since 'Communique' in 1979. When the record did come out fans were expecting the usual sort of records people make when they have a brush with death (10cc's Eric Stewart is a good example after his car crash in 1981: his songs stop being funny and trivial and become deadly serious, urging everybody to stop wasting their lives on things that don't matter): instead 'Shangri-La' takes the other route and is an album full of blessings countings, with most of the pain felt through the eyes of characters. However we say 'most' for a reason because of one of this album's two stunning highlights: the spooky finale 'Don't Crash The Ambulance', which has a delirious Knopfler briefly imagining he's been floored in a Western and chattering away to the ambulance men who come to take him to safety (the other highlight is the title track, as gorgeous a love song as Mark has written).
By and large Knopfler isn't 'in' this album much anyway (although if you take the Elvis references out of 'Back To Tupelo' that song sounds pretty close). Instead this is Knopfler's most Americana album, full not of the poverty-stricken kicthen sink dramas of his past two albums but larger than life figures out on the make and living the 'American Dream' where anyone can do anything - as long as they don't upset the wrong people. While the album starts in North East England, with an unsolved crime from the 1960s, it moves on to take in Elvis, boxer Sonny Liston and McDonalds founder Ray Krok, all characters with big dreams and slightly dodgy pasts (though Knopfler somehow manages to make then all at least partway likeable). I'm not quite sure what this means - whether it's Knopfler simply using other people as his 'escapism' as he comes back to full health (many of these songs come from his reading matter as he got himself well) or whether this is him coming to terms with his move to America at the start of the decade - whatever the cause it's a welcome but subtle change, with the instrumentation on this album changing subtly too from the pastoral folkyness of the last two records to the heavier, more threatening low-key electric sound here. The good news is that we get a much more 'Dire Straits' sound this time around - the bad news is that it's on a much smaller scale, without the long epic guitar solos of old (and Knopfler doesn't play much acoustic guitar, the highlight of the past two records).
Mark has also gone back to his old electric sound a little more - something that should be highly welcome after three straight folk/country/blues hybrids, but the lack of Knopfler guitar over the top of it and the repetitive slow tempos mean this isn't quite the return fans had been hoping for (it may well be that the electric guitar was easier for Knopfler to play, with lots of echo piled on top meaning he doesn't have to play so many notes to make a 'sound'). It has to be said that even in comparison to the last three records (which at least chopped and changed the formula occasionally) this record is horribly repetitive, with the same slow walking pace and low-key bluesy rock sounds on almost every song. Unfortunately it's also the same plodding walking pace that's cropped up too often on the three solo albums anyway, with little here fast enough to be exciting or slow enough to be properly beautiful. To quote from one of the album's lesser moments, well whoop-de-doo.
As a result I consider 'Shagri-La' musically to be one of Knopfler's lesser albums. There are less magical songs to treasure and less surprises than on the last two albums: the fruit machine has been rolled and come out with almost exactly the same song time after time. However lyrically this is new ground: Knopfler's much happier to spend time with the drop-outs and undesirables of the world across this album's lyrics and his range of characters has rarely been better than across this record, where everybody comes with a back story and the world is an ever more dangerous place. Many of these songs are long and poetic, closer to the 'Love Over Gold' style than any record Knopfler's written since the 1980s, and yet they lack that album's sense of grandiosity: the lyrics sound remarkably different but the settings are largely the same, which is something of a waste: many a fan and critic lost out on 'Shangri-La' because on first few hearings it's just another Knopfler record; whereas lyrically it's quite a refreshing change.
There certainly is a lot of good work going on in this album: Knopfler's vocals are warm and toasty (you'd never guess the pain he was in or how nasty some of his characters actually are), his guitar work, though slowed down and cut in half still shines and Guy Fletcher's ever sensitive keyboard work is getting ever closer to the telepathic support Mark used to have from Alan Clark. Certainly there's a lot more reason to purchase this album than 'Golden Heart', an album that was a mess because Knopfler wasn't really sure yet what he wanted to do. 'Shangri-La' has the opposite problem: Knopfler is by now so sure of what he wants to write that he can't seem to write anything else, musically at least - had the melodies been as inventive as the lyrics on this album then 'Shangri-La' could well have been his most important solo album of the lot. It's still very good though if you can spend enough time and energy really getting to know it (rather than treating the record, as one of the lyrics has it, as 'boom, like that').
'5:15 AM' starts off like much of the last two Knopfler LPs, with a workingclassman coming home off the night shift in the snow. The first two verses are full of the by now traditional nostalgia: the narrator passes by his old school, the pub and a workingman's club - which might not might not be where a band were once the 'Sultans Of Swing' - as if Knopfler is again going through his old haunts in his mind. But then his reverie is halted by the sight of a dead body in a car with bullet holes in the windscreen - a frightening slap to the face that even a place that once seemed so safe and cosy can be infiltrated by the scary outside world. Knopfler blames not the murderer but the 'one-arm bandit' who got him hooked on a life of crime - the same one seen on the album cover. Many people have speculated that Knopfler was writing about what became known as the 'one-armed bandit murder' in Siffert - not a million miles away from Newcastle - in 1967 and was greeted by 'North East of England lost to mafia' style headlines.This is a striking and noble attempt at something different lyrically, but unless you're listening closely this song just sounds like every other Knopfler solo song so far and loses the impact it might have had.
'Boom, Like That' is a modern character calling himself 'Kroc' ('K-R-O-C' he helpfully spells out at one stage) that would have been known in decades gone by as a 'spiv'. Running on the fringe of the law in a 'dog eat dog world', he's hemmed in by big corporations muscling in on what he wants to sell. All the time Mark's music hems his character in, as claustrophobic as any in his canon. Apparently this song was based on Ray Kroc, one of the founders of the McDonalds food chain ('Milkshake mix is my thing now...ought to be one of these in every town'), although the references are easy to pass you by and this is an oddly un-American song for such an American institution, as heard on what's possibly the most American of all Knopfler's solo albums.
'Sucker Row' is an impoverished avenue (located somewhere off 'Dead End Street' one would think) where the narrator has been hustling and bustling all his life conscientiously with nothing to show for it. Knopfler almost says 'how dare these rock stars suddenly earn all that money in one go while we scrimp and save!' but just stops himself in time.
'The Trawlerman's Song' was generally received as the best song on the album and was later released as the main track on a surprisingly successful EP. A tribute to fisherman, it's very Knopfler with its safety-in-traditions scenario and the way it makes the ordinary people of yesteryear briefly so much more star-like than modern day icons. However only the last weary verse about the narrator's fear of the future and 'floundering on the rocks' in more than just his boat is truly memorable and moving - the rest is just fishing for cliches.
'Back To Tupelo' is one of the album's better songs, sounding more autobiographical than most. The narrator is a tired rock star torn between two different lives: in one he believes he 'can still be Marlon Brando and the King of Rock and Roll' and on the other knows that 'songs are not enough' to accomplish all he wants to do with his life ('the storylines they're giving you just aren't ringing true'). Mark revealed later that he wrote this song about his idol Elvis' last years, which explains the curious references to 'clambakes' .
'Our Shangri-La' is the album highlight though, a truly beautiful ballad about 'the end of a perfect day for surfer boys and girls' that finds Knopfler finally accepting his new home in America as his own and putting his roots down - for anyone whose come to this album after the home-brewed 'Ragpicker's Dream' this is a significant moment. Seeing the stars circle around him and his family on a starry night, Knopfler decides that this 'is' heaven on Earth anyway and then plays one of his loveliest guitar solos. Delightful, especially in the context o such a tough and brittle CD.
'Everybody Pays' makes sly mention of that accident, Knopfler 'getting back on his horse again' (see 'Communique' for more motorbike-horse metaphors), telling nosy journalists that they can 'come and take a look'. He does sigh though over 'all those directions we never took' which went through his head when he thought that might be 'the end' and deciding that it's all part of the 'deal' for making music - that 'everybody pays to play' in one way or another.
'Song For Sonny Liston' is the hardest sounding song on the album, a tribute to the boxer who grew up in poverty ('So many mouths to feed!'), hated by everyone for his criminal past ('which he wore like a ball and chain'). Knopfler even hints dangerously that his death apparently from a heroin overdose was no 'accident' and that someone thought his success was 'bad' for the civil rights movement- that Liston hated needles and no drug equipment was found in his hotel room. Interesting that Knopfler should make this song so explicitly about one person and name him, on an album that's often more ambiguous about the personalities he writes about.
'Whoop De Doo', though, is dreadful - a slow cliche riddled ballad about Knopfler's new family life that has him reaching for his wife instead of his 'answerphone' whenever he comes home. While it's nice to hear Mark so contented, it's all too musically obvious that he's swapped his career for his personal life now with no really memorable images on this track at all.
'Postcards From Paraguay' is better written but similarly unmemorable, sounding like a 1940s film score. This narrator is another robber, but apparently not a 'real' one this time, stealing from different people just to stay afloat and pay back his own debts.
'All That Matters' is the one song on the album that sounds like it would have fitted in nicely on 'Ragpickers'. Alas it's another rather cheesy tribute to family who in a messed up world 'are all that matters'. You sense that this is another song written after the crash, Knopfler sighing that he 'can't stop the pain' - meaning the darker side of life as well as the physical pain - but when you have love 'that's all that matters'.
'Stand Up Guy' sounds rather British too - the alcoholic tragic comedian so desperate to make other laugh sounds a peculiarly English music hall phenomenon. However the 'stand up' plays guitar too and the song seems to be named for someone who keeps rising whenever someone tries to put him down, so could easily be about Knopfler himself (then again, the character is also referred to as a 'doctor' - your guess over inspiration is as good as mine).
No such doubts over skiffle song 'Donegan's Gone' which namechecks Lonnie several times and is a pretty spot-on parody of his cheeky 'Rock Island LIne' style. I was always surprised that Donegan's death in 2002 went so un-noticed; Lonnie Donegan was responsible for getting so many people into music in the pre-Beatles days and can be considered the creator of the 'anyone-can-play' feeling usually attributed to punk. Knopfler's tribute comes late and without anything really new to say but is nevertheless heartfelt and a good approximation of his style.
The album then ends with the most experimental song, 'Don't Crash The Ambulance', a curious Western waltz that like much of the album sounds like a life lesson being passed on to Knopfler's offspring ('Watch and Learn, children') but switches on the mention of 'trouble spots in everyone's life - with Knopfler suddenly back on the stretcher, being lifted up to the ambulance. Rambling now, he imagines being lifted up by his son ('Not so fast, junior!') and reflecting miserably on the ugly 'gas and oil' stations he sees blotting the landscape on his ride to what he fears might be his death. Somewhere along the way the ambulance driver talks and starts calling Knopfler 'son', messing up the whole narrative in a dream-like adrenalin-fuelled sort of way and ticking hi off for his recklessness ('We don't like accidents'). Throughout it all it seems as if Mark is handing over his 'adulthood' to his own children, urging them to keep on his unfinished work and urging them not to 'crash the ambulance' that delivers hope to a world that doesn't have any. The music is slightly irritating, but the lyrics are fascinating and a remarkable end to a very thoughtful album.

David Knopfler: Ship Of Dreams (2004)..........................................
David Knopfler "Ship Of Dreams"
(Edel, '2004')
4U (Rabbit Song)/Easy Street/God's Mockingbird/Ship Of Dreams/True Love/All I Want Is You/Going Down With The Waves/When Will The Crying Stop?/Shine Shine Shine/The Price For Loving You/Sometimes There Are No Words/Mending My Nets/Tears Fall/Symmetry Of The Stars
"Where this drowned Phoenician sailor rocks to the rhythm of his broken oars"
After a trio of acoustic albums, David does the sensible thing and plugs in again, further distancing himself from his brother's solo work while sounding ever more like Dire Straits. The results is a record that, more than any of the others, sounds like the album David could have made had the parent band been more of a democracy - there's a ringing electric guitar sound that suggests more than ever that the distinctive guitar sound is in the Knopfler DNA and this album edges ever closer to rock, whilst staying to true to its folk principles. For the first time since 'Lifelines' David seems to be writing sings that could at least be interpreted as about his old band too, with references to 'Romeo and Juliet' on 'God's Mockingbird', the critical 'America' sounds like a response to brother Mark's happier 'Sailing To Philadelphia' and with 'Easy Street' sounding as if it's down the road from 'The Walk Of Life'. Once again there's a slight religious feel to this work, but this time instead of angels and debates over whether man was created by a deity the album is all about escaping the devil's clutches (rock and roll was called 'the devil's music' for a reason, after all). This results in some far more aggressive imagery than usual from the laidback poetic younger Knopfler, with album highlight 'God's Mockingbird'  a harrowing portrayal of a life that 'went in too deep too far' too early and the character is haunted by all the things that could have been (the twist at the end is where David whispers her name 'Juliet', hinting that she's played hard-to-get over Romeo too many times and never did find her true love). Elsewhere the theme of the record is more being wary of what people tell you, from the crooks around every corner to the immigrants who move to America believing in the 'dream' to the very Mark-style ballads about those scrimping and saving their way through life.
Artistically this is another mixed bag from David, although at sixteen songs there's easily another good album in here alongside the filler. Alongside 'God's Mockingbird' there are several other great songs here; including 'Mending My Nets' (where a present day Ophelia joins the cast of Dire Straits characters formed in Shakespeare plays) and incidentally is a lot more interesting than brother Mark's similar and better known piece 'The Trawlerman's Song' from the same year; 'Sometimes There Are No Words' is a great punchy little blues-rocker that would have fitted in nicely on 'Makin' Movies'; 'Tears Fall' is the closest David has ever come to writing a 'standard', one of those timeless songs exquisitely crafted that you don't have to be a 'fan' to like - how this wasn't a single (never mind a hit single) I'll never know. Contrasted against this 'Easy Street' is horrid, all the worst aspects of the old band sound: it gets stuck in a faux-blues groove and simply never moves, with some clichéd lyrics about the devil spouted over the top, while the title track is average stuff by David's high standards and 'America' is perhaps a deep growl too far. Still, that's not bad odds really and together with the strong album theme and the delightful return to the electric playing (don't worry folk fans - you can hear acoustic versions of many of these songs on the two David Knopfler live albums forthcoming on this list) there's much here to satisfy old fans. Personally I still prefer 'The Giver Of Gifts' which has more poetic craftsmanship and individuality, but if you're new to David's work and are curious to try it then this our AAA recommended place to start, a neat stepping stone between the dazzling brilliance of the band he left behind in 1981 and his own quiet poetic career he's been slowly carving since then. As luck would have it, this album sold rather better than the earlier records too so should be a relatively easy one to find (in comparison to the rest anyway!) All this and not a synthesiser in sight!

                                                                     
Mark Knopfler "The Trawler's Song (EP)"
(Mercury, April 2005)
The Trawlerman's Song/Back To Tupelo/Song For Sonny Liston/Boom Like That/Donegan's Gone/Stand-Up Guy
"I could use a layoff, getting my strength back, but there's a loan to payoff and a few skipjack"
With 'Trawlerman's Song' the track from 'Shangri-La' receiving most airplay but having left things a little too late for a single, Mercury instead decided to release the song as the head of an EP. With Mark having written himself out, the rest of the EP became a five-song mini-concert of other songs from that album played live and largely solo in Mark's Californian home studio (named 'Shangri-La' after the album). A means of rebuilding his guitar playing muscles in lieu of going on tour, it was a clever way of taking the strain of touring away from him, although Knopfler did still play a few shows to promote the album.The results could not have been more different to the last live releases 'On The Night' and 'Encores': what once sounded remote and over-sized become small and vibrant, with Mark sounding to all intents and purposes as if he's playing your living room (well, he's playing next door to his own living room at least). What could have been merely a bit of collection filler with a selection of songs that were far from being my favourites on that album (where is the title track, which would have suited the lazily intimate sessions all the more?) actually proved to be a bit of a revelation, with forgotten rather ordinary songs like 'Back To Tupelo' and 'Stand Up Guy' sounding much more vibrant and memorable played by Mark alone. 'Donegan's Gone' too is much more faithful to the spirit of the song, with a much more skiffle vibe (in retrospect it seems odd that 'Trawlerman's wasn't played live too as it would have fitted the nicely low key vibe of this recording). If only all of 'Shangri-La' had been recorded like this - or better yet had Mark recorded a full live album in this way with the best of his solo catalogue. I'm surprised actually that the later didn't happen, given how well this EP was received, although there was a sequel released hard on its heels...

Mark Knopfler "One Take Radio Sessions (EP)"
(Mercury, June 2005)
The Trawlerman's Song/Back To Tupelo/Song For Sonny Liston/Rudiger/Boom Like That/Everybody Pays/Donegan's Gone/Stand-Up Guy
"All those directions that we never took...everybody pays to play"
This collection of one-take wonders is more of the same, with once again a collection of  songs from 'Shangri-La' (plus the surprise return of 1996's 'Rudiger') re-recorded in an intimate stripped down setting in Mark's home studio. Unfortunately what worked well once is rather less successful on the sequel: four of the tracks here are straight repeats from that earlier record, with a 'live' version of 'The Trawlerman's Song' added along with a near identical version of 'Everybody Pays'. At 40 minutes this is clearly more than the average EP, but is arguably the biggest rip-off in the Dire Straits canon, with just three new recordings and no new songs - not that there's any mention of that on the sleeve. Only 'Rudiger' is really worth owning this set for, sounding much more 'alive' than the original on 'Golden Heart' and adding a nice little rock swagger to the original's bluesy feel and no sign of the irritating string arrangement. Still, this is something of a lost opportunity: how good could this release have been if extended to a full album and featuring the best two or three songs from all the Knopfler solo records?

Dire Straits and Mark Knopfler "Private Investigations - The Best Of"
(Mercury/Vertigo/Warner Brothers, November 2005)
CD One: Telegraph Road/Sultans Of Swing/Love Over Gold/Romeo and Juliet/Tunnel Of Love/Private Investigations/So Far Away/Money For Nothing/Brothers In Arms/Walk Of Life/Your Latest Trick
CD Two: Calling Elvis/On Every Street/Going Home (Theme From Local Hero)/Darling Pretty/The Long Road/Why Aye Man/Sailing To Philadelphia/What It Is/The Trawlerman's Song/Boom Like That/All The Road Running
"It's a mystery to me, the game commences, for the usual fee - plus expenses...Treachery and treason, there's always an excuse for it, but when I find the reason I still can't get used to it!"
Another decade (well nearly), another compilation, this one extended to two CDs to better accommodate Dire Straits' longer album tracks and featurning nine rather questionable song choices from mark's solo career. In truth the two halves don't  mix - especially given that the cut off point of 'On Every Street' means most Dire Straits rather than Knopfler fans have probably never played the second disc more than once - with all that size, scope and spectacle replaced by some tiny songs about ordinary people which sound even more flimsy as a result (even in truth they're more substantial than a lot of the band songs, certainly the 'Brothers In Arms' bunch). Like many a compilation, this one is most interesting for what's missing: nothing from 'Communique' for instance and again just the hit song from the debut LP. Only the superior American edition includes 'Skateaway' too, sensibly substituted for the horrendous solo song 'Darling Pretty', the worst thing on the record. However at least this time there are no less than three songs from 'Love Over Gold', including the curious decision to place 'Telegraph Road' as the opening track - superlative as it is, good luck getting through those 14 minutes without hitting the skip button if you're a newcomer to this band! (Al you hear for a full 90 seconds is a single keyboard note from Alan Clark). The decision to pare 'On Every Street' down to perhaps the best two tracks is also a good decision, as if adding 'Going Home' as the 'bridge' between the band years and Knopfler solo.
If only Mercury had chosen a better selection of solo songs (and perhaps added a couple of David's) then this compilation might have been very worthy indeed, but alas instead of the 'real' best songs ('I'm The Fool' 'Whose Your Baby Now?' 'Silvertown Blues' 'Prairie Wedding' 'Marbletown' 'You Don't Know You're Born' 'Shangri-La' and 'Don't Crash The Ambulance' and 'This Is Us', all of which have more of a 'Dire Straitsy' sound than anything featured here) we get an awful lot of awful songs which far from opening doors to Mark's solo work simply showed many fans how far the mighty had fallen (note: at the time 'All The Roadrunning' was quite a coup for this set, the first time any of the Emmylou Harris sessions had been heard in (emmy)lieu of the 'Roadrunning' album out the following year). However until a superior single-disc set arrives (containing the obvious hits plus the best single songs apiece from all six studio albums) this patchy compilation still remains the best Dire Straits compilation available today. One last comment though: these songs sold in the millions the first time around, so in what way is this a 'Private Investigation'? Who on earth looked through a list of Dire Straits songs and went 'that'll do?' - only in comparison to 'Money For Nothing' does this title make any sense! (If they must name something after a hit then what's wrong with 'The Walk Of Life'?!)

                                                                              
Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris "All The Roadrunning"
(Mercury, April 2006)
Beachcombing/I Dug Up A Diamond/This Is Us/Red Staggerwing/Rollin' On/Love And Happiness/Right Now/Donkey Town/Belle Starr/Beyond My Wildest Dreams/All The Roadrunning/If This Is Goodbye
"It don't take a genius, baby, there ain't no big mystery, you can't play it safe and still go down in history"
On the surface there isn't that much that seems to connect two AAA stalwarts: Emmylou Harris (who came to fame working with Byrd Gram Parsons and  guesting on Neil Young records) and Mark Knopfler (I sure hope you know who he is or this book has been a bit of a wasted purchase!) She's a pure country girl and her records are all about that voice in different permutations, while she hasn't worked as part of a duo since her teens; he's on the journey from Rock God to folkie where it's mainly about the guitar. He too last worked in a duo when he was at school with his friend Sue as 'singer and backup guitarist'. You wonder how the pair ever met, never mind started making an album together. Below the surface though there's a lot in common: both writers are obsessed with places, of scenery and people and love making their autobiographical points through the eyes of characters (many of Emmylou's songs are about downtrodden working single mothers, loosely based on her own story before meeting Gram and seeing her career taking off - many of her albums sound like the Knopfler of 'Ragpicker's Dream'). The pair too are unusual 'musical heroes', preferring to keep secrets and twist and turn their career paths than pull in huge crowds and stick to material they know will keep their fans happy (it speaks volumes for instance that despite being started as long ago as 1998 neither dropped hints to the music press about the project). There is then undeniably a chemistry and rapport about this album that comes over loud and clear, despite the fact that this duets album was made in the worst possible way, in snatched single sessions here and there across a period of seven years, with the pair hardly ever in the same room whilst making it (Emmylou revealed in interviews how much she loves the 'phantom third voice' that comes from singers working together and overlapping - CSN fans will know what I mean - and claims the one that comes when she and Mark sings is particularly special). Mark is unusually suited to duet singing considering he's never really done it before - the softer, comforting tenor partner to Emmylou's strident soprano - while Harris is getting off on the fact that she has a regular partner for the first time since Parsons in 1973 (though she's recorded lots of one-off duets along the way).
That's the good news: the bad news is that this album sounds too often as if it's a 'minor project' sandwiched between other records that the pair are spending more time on. Heard out of context each song is pleasant enough, but heard altogether the album sounds naggingly like something else more or less the way through and has too many similar songs stacked together, all using the same tricks of that same blend, slow tempo and country-rock twinges in varying shades. 'Roadrunning' - even the title suggests a blur of passing ships in the night - would have benefitted greatly from the pair spending even a month working together banging these songs into more shape, instead of recording what they can when they can. This album lacks the depth and largeness of vision both singers usually bring to their work, the album sounding more like their greatest weaknesses (a tendency to slip into cliche and taking the easy comfortable way out) than their strengths (the danger, the pioneering instinct and the social conscience which is heard on both their work but strangely absent here, as if neither wants to upset the other). Too often the songs here sound like the minor ones from both their respective back catalogues rather than the highlights (which makes sense: only in 2005 did the pair start concentrating on this album properly - why waste good songs on a project that might never happen and has already taken seven years?) Fans generally hold that this album worked much better on the live stage, where Mark and Emmylou actually worked together and knocked the blunt edges off the songs, and while a live album after just one album together ('Live Roadrunning' out the following year) seems excessive when you spot it in discographies it actually makes more sense than making a studio record. The sad news is that after taking the brave step of working together both brave courageous pioneering musicians spend too long playing safe, 'casting' each other to play on songs that they would have been recording anyway instead of uniting their viewpoints and turning this album into, say, a reflection of working class man and single breadline mother making ends meet (or not) together. Had Emmylou guested on 'Philadelphia' and 'Ragpickers' (closer still to her natural style) it might have made more sense than a lot of what's here.
For all that, though, Emmylou brings out the best in Knopfler. His vocals are sharper, his guitar playing is more effective for being kept for part of the song rather than all of it (Emmylou's acoustic is the 'constant' on this album, with Mark's stinging electric adding the colour) and half an album of Knopfler in the lengthy CD age is somehow easier to take than eighty minutes worth (or two hours if it's 'Privateering'). The pair's backing band sounds remarkably tight and together considering it's made up of members of both singers' usual backing crew who had probably never met never mind work together before (including Dire Straits' Guy Fletcher again). 
Inevitably, perhaps, the theme of this album is nostalgia - a theme common to both writers. The album starts with 'wreckage washing up all along the coast' and across the album Mark and Emmylou try to come to terms with events from their past - or their characters' imagined pasts at least. The album is full of characteristic Knopfler writing touches: no cars this time but a song about a plane ('Stagger Wing'), digging for treasure ('I Dug Up A Diamond') an empty ghost town where nobody lives ('Donkey Town'), while interestingly handing Emmylou the lead on his songs about the sting about fame not being what it's cracked up to be ('Belle Starr') and the need to carry on after hard times ('Rollin' On'). Emmylou writes just the traditional song 'Love And Happiness', which sounds like a compilation of lots of her songs. Only the 9/11 influenced closing song 'If This Is Goodbye', about a teary phone call home you fear might be your last, is something we haven't heard from either writer before. Unusually for a duets album the pair only address each other in the album highlight 'This Is Us', a song that ironically isn't about the pair of singers' shared era across the 70s 80s and 90s at all but a jaded couple on the brink of splitting up (had Gram Parsons been around in 2006 he'd have jumped at recording this with Emmylou, a reminder of the smoke and mirrors the pair played out across their albums 'GP' and 'Return Of The Grievous Angel' in 1972-73). Mostly then it's same old same old, but with the benefit of having the two vocalists together and very occasionally the recycled mixture is cooked up rather better than it has before ('This Is Us', the title track and 'Beyond My Wildest Dreams' are the three outright highlight this time around).
In other words, this is a disappointment for those who were expecting the two different singers and writers to bring out the best in each other - this is really just a Mark Knopfler album written the usual way but with Emmylou singing rather than a project built from the ground up to be different. However it remains likeable - especially on the live album - saved by a mixture of their obvious rapport and the occasional good song and is certainly preferable to simply having all of these leftover songs put out as one of the weaker solo Mark Knopfler albums. In the terms of the album's own lexicography, this isn't an ambling country road nor a brightly lit motorway but somewhere in between, a nicely paced country ramble that gets you prettily from A to B without necessarily taking the quickest route. After the inevitable problems of finding out what works and what doesn't that's true of all new directions, a second album started together from scratch would surely have been pretty darn good - but sadly as yet it isn't to be.
'Beachcombing' is an interesting start, immediately more produced and glossy than anything on 'Philadelphia' 'Ragpicker's or 'Shangri-La', although as it turns out that will be the exception rather than the rule. Knopfler starts the record alone before Emmylou joins in on the chorus and here their vocals are at their worst (she has to fit round him rather than vice versa and it all goes a bit shrill). Still, the song is nice, full of images of tiny animals out of their depth amongst the size of nature.
I can never decide whether I love or hate 'I Dug Up A Diamond' , a slow atonal ballad that changes every time I hear it. Sometimes it's a waste of a good tune that Mark would have done better on his own; at other times it's one of only two songs on this album that does something unexpected, full of pulling soaring lengthy notes and nice lyrics about a working class mine mining for diamonds and going through hardship for the 'diamonds' he's left at home.
'This Is Us' is the poppiest, most exuberant moment on the album and works nicely, with Knopfler briefly returning to a Dire Straits style swing with a typically 'Money For Nothing' style backing track and two lots of sighing soaring lead guitar. Mark and Emmylou overlap rather than singing harmony, sounding not unlike Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood in the process, weary of a fading marriage but still with lots of shared memories (Mark is clearly writing for second wife Lourdes here, but having Emmylou alongside him finally 'frees' his conscience to write about their failed mid-80s marriage properly for the first time, from both points of view and with enough distance to recognise the happier times). Emmylou, so used to singing about fading relationships with Gram, is particularly spot-on here.
'Red Staggering' is one of two songs that kick-started the project back in 1998. A typical Knopfler song about a plane he admired as a boy, it features a curious lyric where he imagines he 'is' the plane and which is written seemingly deliberately in Emmylou's pure country style. The song suits here more than him, but does feature one great verse equally fitting to both: the third ('If I was a Fender guitar, a guitar painted red, you could play me darlin' until your fingers bled')
'Rollin' On' is one of the album's weaker songs, an annoyingly modern production unsuited to the nicely retro haiku-like lyrics of poverty ('Been kicking sawdust, in these clothes, for a blue moon and a red rose'). There's a nice sense of short-term pessimism long-term optimism more usually found in Kinks songs but there have been far better songs on the same theme.
'Love And Happiness' is Emmylou's star turn right at the heart of the record and has clearly been written with Mark's pealing electric guitar swirl in mind. Though a little one-layered (it's basically a long list of good luck charms) and woefully slow, some nice singing and that lovely main tune just about enables the song to get away with it.
'Right Now' is a scarier, angrier ride that sounds more like the intense marriage-hone-wrong sounds of the Dire Straits debut. This time it's Emmylou's turn to sound a little lost although the pair's harmonies together are the best on the album. Like many a Knopfler song it features a couple in car lost in more ways than just geographically, a grumpy car ride made in stubborn silence and acrimony that's well described ('I'm looking down this road tonight and I don't see a light') but doesn't really go anywhere.
'Donkey Town' is a lengthy song (at 5:42 it's the longest here) and a keening acoustic ballad that sounds like a 'Ragpicker's outtake - although it was actually written as part of the 'Sailing To Philadelphia' bunch and, along with 'red Staggerwing', was the first song recorded for the project. It's another town where not much happens, nobody has any money and the narrator's girl has been untrue, but he's still in love so everything's all mighty fine, honest.
'Belle Starr' is Knopfler's best attempt on the album to write in Emmylou's style, so much so this sounds more like her song than his. She's feeling wronged, her husband has been 'dragging his feet' with family life but still believes they have a future together (that 'I'll be your Belle Starr and you can be my Jesse James').
'Beyond My Wildest Dreams' is perhaps the most interesting song from the album's second half, a largely solo Knopfler song that again finds the narrator in a car driving to some new love. He hallucinates as he drives, seeing 'a love supreme in the flashing lines' and enjoying the fact his manager's finally given him some time off. Anyone whose followed Knopfler's career since the first, when songs like 'Southbound Train' 'Down To The Waterline' and 'Eastbound Train' featured the narrator on the move, walking in and out of love, will know where this song is coming from and it's nice to hear Knopfler in happier times. There's a killer middle eight that suddenly switches to the minor key too, pointing at just how hard the road has been before this.
Keeping with the travel theme 'All The Roadrunning' is a nice weary country-folk hybrid  that features two jaded lovers travelling separately to the same gig where they can reunite on stage. A second verse has him as a cyclist on the wall of death, heading for retirement. Knopfler wonders in both personas whether all that 'roadrunning' has been 'in vein' but Emmylou is there to offer comfort that the journey still has further to go. The result is a song in the style of Mark's first album 'Golden Heart' but vastly superior.
The album then ends with 'If This Is Goodbye', based loosely on one of the reported phone-calls home from a worker trapped in the twin towers on 9/11, sure that their time is up, the shared vocal work making it more of a dialogue than monologue (the influence alone shows how long this album was in the works: the world stopped listening to 9/11 songs by 2004 never mind 2006). The song struggles to say anything more than 'words are not enough' and veers rather close to parody at times but is at least partly heartfelt.
The result is an album that, like many Knopfler solo works, grows on you the more you play it, as the hidden subtleties and nuances on the album come out. The sad fact remains though that what should have been a spark between two very dynamic performers results in a rather sleepy little album where not much seems to happen. This partnership shows distinct promise though and perhaps has more of a road yet to run.


Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris "Real Live Roadrunning"
(Mercury, November 2006)
Right Now/Red Staggerwing/Red Dirt Girl/Done With Bonaparte/Romeo and Juliet/All That Matters/This Is Us/All The Roadrunning/Boulder To Birmingham/Speedway To Nazareth/So Far Away/Our Shangri-La/If This Is Goodbye/Why Worry?
"The last time I felt like this I was in the wilderness and the canyon was on fire"
While on the face of it it's a little bit daft for a duo with only one album behind them to go out on the road and release a live album (with the five songs repeated here from 'All The Roadrunning' near enough identical), this is actually a rather good in-concert listening experience. Though they're new to working with one another neither of the singers are new to the stage which in many ways is their more natural home. The fact that the album was recorded in protracted sessions with Mark and Emmylou passing like ships in the night also means that the pair have a lot more of a rapport and informality here and turn in much better performances of the album songs all round. Best of all they sing on a great deal of each other's back catalogue, meaning that Emmylou gets to croon her way through a whole range of choices from Mark's own records (including a lovely 'Our Shangri-La' and a very suitable country re-make of 'Speedway At Nazareth', although the three Dire Straits songs 'So Far Away' 'Why Worry?' and a rather ugly piano-based 'Romeo and Juliet' fare less well, not really being duet material). In return Mark gets to play some nice guitar on perhaps Emmylou's greatest composition 'Boulder To Birmingham' from the 1970s (as covered by fellow AAA band The Hollies) and the nicely Knopflerish 'Red Dirt Girl' from Emmylou's 2000 album of the same name. The set comes with a DVD which features the full range of songs from the tour rather than what could fit on a single disc (adding 'I Dug Up A Diamond' 'Belle Starr'  Mark's 'Song For Sonny Liston' and Emmylou's 1982 hit 'Born To Run'), none of which are all that special and the pair don't exactly make great telly viewing (neither of them are natural extrovert performers). However even with the odd problem there's a lot of nice musical interplay going on that makes even more sense of the collaboration than on the album and there's some lovely packaging too including a wonderful 'mock' re-make of the sleeve for 'Brothers In Arms' with Emmylou's trademark acoustic guitar perched alongside Mark's National. On this evidence the road should have lasted for much longer and did both singers the world of good.

David Knopfler "Songs For The Siren"
(Blue Rose Records '2006')
Steel Wheels/Fire Down Below/Sophie's Song/Somebody Kind/Washing Horses In Eden/Razor Moon/Accidents Don't Just Happen/One Thing Leads To Another/Drowning Pool/The Love Of Your Life/Smile And Say OK
"I can't give it up - but out of reach and out of mind"
Alas after an incredible run of nine studio albums David's solo studio career comes to a halt as he reaches double figures - and in many ways just as it was getting interesting. Having mastered noisy synth pop, golden acoustic, Dire Straits style swagger, this album is a neat means of combining the three styles - it would have been fascinating to know where David might have gone next. The result is another likeable but patchy album that is perhaps little more consistent than of late but offers an ever wider range of what the younger Knopfler can do. As you can tell by some of the fascinating song titles, this is another album big on poetry although sadly despite the title we never really get a 'theme' coming across - apart from 'Somebody Kind' and 'Love Of Your Life' none of these songs sound addressed to anyone and display the usual mixture of irritated but concerned modern citizen and spiritual thinker. In a way it's a shame that it's this album that should be named for a 'muse' as in many ways David sounds as if he's taken a step back from the intensity of his recent work, as he has less to say in the form of rock and roll these days (he had just published his book of poetry the year before after all). However there are the usual quota of decent songs that stand out from the pack, including the lovely 'Somebody Kind' that appears to reflect on David's urge to write whether anyone hears him or not (although 'somebody kind' might, like the listener), the low key folk ballad 'Sophie's Song' and the quirky but memorable 'washing Elephants In Eden'. This time around it's the electric rockers that don't really come together, with opener 'Steel Wheels' - the one song from this album you can find relatively easily - something of a disappointment after the accurate Dire Straits soundalikes on the past CD, while the noisy 'Drowning Pool' is a step towards punk too far. Sadly 'Siren' seems to have ended a rather successful run of albums that was the best received and highest selling since the early days and it's comparative failure seems to have killed off David's studio work to date at least. Thankfully though some popular European acoustic tours and a string of live albums and compilations have kept David at least partly in the public eye and hopefully studio album eleven will be out one day soon - and a very welcome return it will be if contains even a fraction of the other album's wit, wisdom and rock wailing, patchy as these records can sometimes be. A shame though that the career didn't end on a high but on a mid-way success story. 
                                                                            
Mark Knopfler "Kill To Get Crimson"
(Mercury, September 2007)
True Love Will Never Fade/The Scaffolder's Wife/The Fizzy And The Still/Heart Full Of Holes/We Can Get Wild/Secondary Waltz/Punish The Monkey/Let It All Go/Behind With The Rent/Fish And The Bird/Madame Geneva's/In The Sky
"When it's 'pop go the weasel' let go of the easel!"
If Mark's 'solo' career corresponds to his 'band' career then record number five should be his 'Brothers In Arms', the moment he either 'sold out' or managed to get all the different aspects to his personality in one ear-friendly collection, depending on what you think of that album. Of course Mark has been on quite a career trajectory since then so what you really notice about this album is how little has changed - how even working with Emmylou Harris and a band for a whole tour has changed nothing in the way that this album works. In common with the other solo albums to date this is a mainly acoustic album, full of mainly folky songs with a hint of rock, blues and country in there too, with themes that are mostly about nostalgia and characters who are mainly on the breadline. The vast majority of the tracks on this album could have appeared on any of the past albums and no one would really have noticed. As a result this is another strong-but-inconsistent album interchangeable with the rest.
The good news is that once again there are many individual tracks to enjoy that sort of get lost in the overall album sound. Notably these are the songs that try to do something that little bit different: the mournful Jethro Tull-style folk of 'The Scaffolder's Wife', which is written like a joke but treated as a tragedy, full of witty one-liners alongside the feelings of empathy for the unpaid unloved un-noticed hard worker; 'The Fizzy And The Still' is a lovely piece about failure, ostensibly about a trip to Hollywood that went wrong but belivably about Mark himself doing back home after a failed first marriage and a struggling music career played with real melancholy beauty; 'Heart Full Of Holes' is a rare attempt at straight folk that works remarkably well, with Knopfler's narrator a heartbroken bartender who spends his life listening to other people's problems whilst nursing plenty of his own; 'The Fish and the Bird' is an epic sound poem that sounds like an Aesop fable matched to a keening slow-changing chordal texture that's remarkably effective. All four sound remarkably honest and autobiographical, whatever their use of character, perhaps turning the clock back once again to Mark's younger days when we worked several jobs before his music paid, when the marriage he thought would last forever crumbled when the pair left school and the amount of old scars he carries that still haven't healed. There is, additionally, 'Secondary Waltz', a sweet tale of childhood and an all-boy's school's attempts to dance a waltz with an all-girl's school which 'sounds' real in all its magnificent detail (something of a nostalgia fest all round, this song started life in the early Dire Straits period - anywhere from 1977 to 1981 - with a very different tune and slightly different lyrics). It's always dangerous, of course, to read autobiographical material into what an artist writes and then sings through other people's eyes - but you only have to contrast the sheer concentration and emotion of these tracks in comparison to the throwaway nature of much of the rest to realise that something about these songs resonates with Mark, who sings these from the heart not the imagination.
Notably there is no overall theme to tie this album altogether, not even a setting. There's notably little on Mark's usual themes, of 'going home' or working out where home is after a long journey - this despite the presence on the front cover of one of his favourite paintings ('Four Lambrettas and Three Portraits of Janet Churchman', drawn by John Bratby in 1958). When I first saw the cover I thought that, at last, Knopfler might be writing about his motorbike accident of 2003 firsthand - but there isn't a mention of a motorbike in the whole record (even on 'We Can Get Wild', a tale of teenage debauchery in the 1950s seemingly deliberately tame as if to contrast their innocence with today's even more peer pressured children, bikes are noticeable by their absence). Instead what we have is a string of characters all going through their ups and (mainly) downs, on what is one of the more sombre Knopfler records - but all that said this doesn't 'feel' like a cycle of songs the same way that 'Ragpicker's Dream' was.  It's hard, for instance, to equate the put-upon low down narrator of 'Punish The Monkey' and 'Behind With The Rent' with the laissez faire approach of 'Let It All Go' and high-falluting concepts of closer 'In The Sky'. The settings keep changing too: Ragpicker's was clearly a post-war 40s album even if there never were any dates: this album keeps dropping hints that we're in the 1930s, then the 1950s, then the present day.
Nor does this album make good on the album title's 'promise' that this will be a harsher, more violent world. Goodness knows Knopfler has the ability to write an album in this line: the scaryness of 'Where Do You Think You're Going?', the aggression tinged with guilt of 'You Don't Know You're Born' and most of the 'Last Exit To Brooklyn' point to how well Knopfler can do scary, even if it's not a place he likes to visit too often. Instead the line about the title comes from a painter in the song 'Let It All Go', noting 'I'd kill to get crimson on this palette knife, son'. That kind of says everything about this record: goodness knows most of these narrators have a hard story to tell and for once there's no goodtime pop like 'Why Aye Man' or 'Boom, Like That' to keep the demons at bay. But compared to even the quiet rage of 'Ragpicker's Dream' this album is notably free from the whirlwind of fury; whether treated as a joke, a lesson, a memory of something that ended up working well or countered with a dream of how things will be in the future, all the characters here are survivors, doing what they do without even realising how poor off they are. It's Knopfler who brings all the bathos and emotion to this album, not his characters ('The Scaffolder's Wife', for instance, told in the third person, or closer 'In The Sky' which is the only track to 'talk' to one of these characters who may or may not be Mark himself).
In the end I've had to write this review about what 'Kill to Get Crimson' isn't because it's so hard to work out what it is. The album lacks the country-tinged themes of heartbreak of 'Golden Heart', the moody travelogue 'Sailing To Philadelphia', the harsh and brittle working class 'Ragpicker's Dream' or the troubled character-driven affair of 'Shangri-La'. Instead 'Crimson' sounds like it's a compilation taken from all of these albums without ever quite finding its own identity (I'd have been quite willing to believe it was this album, not 'Roadrunning', made in a snatched few weeks here and there across a number of years). Is it any good? Well, yes, though once again with all the reservations of the previous albums. There's less here to dislike than there sometimes is, but not really much here to love apart from the glorious trilogy we've already highlighted. In a weird way, though, what 'Crimson' does is work well as a sampler of Mark's solo work - if you fall in love with this record then chances are you'll fall in love with everything else, although it's hard to imagine any fan loving this CD over any of the others - it's as intense in its way as any of them and yet does so without having as large a story or as heavy an emotion to tell. A mixture of autobiography, character, tales of hardship, love songs, folk, country, blues, laments, stark performances and epic productions, it's a little bit of everything without being a lot of anything.
'True Love Will Never Fade' is the love song, a pretty but rather basic folk song that opens with the title repeated over four straight times before the tune finally arrives. Knopfler laughs at the idea of love being 'forever' or a 'yellow brick road' that leads to happiness, equating his romantic journey to 'following breadcrumbs' on instinct. Notably Mark ends the song dreaming about being somewhere else 'on a steamer', this album's one reference to travel.
'The Scaffolder's Wife' is easily the album highlight and one of Mark's greatest solo songs. 'Don't begrudge her the Merc, it's been nothing but work' quips Knopfler on this well observed folkie piece about a hard-lined hard-living wife whose done everything, supportively, without a fuss (even 'losing her looks over company books' - this is a very quotable song!) The melody is gorgeous, a waltz that points at her hidden frustration and melancholy without losing the bounce in her walk as she somehow finds the means to carry on. A rare electric guitar solo, just like the old days, is the icing on the cake though it's the rare use of flutes that makes this song so special, either tugging at the minor key and trying to force the music to resolve and move on or dancing with Knopfler's guitar in giggly delight.
'The Fizzy And The Still' is beautiful too, a mournful song that's the closest in style here to Dire Straits, but with that wonderful National Guitar sound sounding lonely and lost in this new backing. The narrator is back home, his tail between his legs, 'not quite the movie star', sadly knocking on his parent's door for help. His wife too 'asked too high a price' so instead he's there, on the sofa, his catalogue of failures pouring out of him as he sits 'between the fizzy and the still', an observation of the drinks on the table but which might also apply to the moods of his parents. A melancholy cry of 'it's not for me' and a near-perfect guitar solo later, it's easy to hear much emotional investment in this gloriously sad song.
Against all the odds, 'Heart Full Of Holes' is a third marvellous track in a row. Mark's bartender is well trusted to keep a secret but the one he keeps best is his own hidden life 'all my yesterday's broken, a watch with no face, all battered and old'. A fiercely traditional folk song complete with accordion solo ('Rock and roll? Well I don't know!' the older 50s narrator sighs at one stage), this is another song with a beautiful melody full of longing and guilt, although all the narrator can say is 'be glad it's not worse'.
'We Can Get Wild' adds a touch of rock and roll and the guitars actually plug in at last, but this is a very different sound to Dire Straits: worried, fretting, uncertain. Knopfler's narrator dreams of a 'beautiful year' as he leaves home with an un-named person (who might even be the piano he addresses in the first verse) and he adds 'don't know If I'm gonna be a star, but I'm gonna play guitar!' to make us think this is him (the events perhaps taking place a year before 'The Fizzy And The Still'). However the dating is clearly 50s what with its DA haircuts, gramophones and drainpipe trousers so is unlikely to be 'wholly' truthful (Mark was born in 1949, which makes him eleven when the sixties started). Throughout, though, the narrator's lyrical certainty doesn't seem to be matched by the music, which casts a shadow of doubt over proceedings and makes us wonder if all of these promises of future happiness aren't just the narrator fooling himself a little.
'Secondary Waltz' is another 'memory' song, taken from a secondary boy's school attempts to learn a waltz they'll be dancing with a girl's school at the Christmas dance. The boys hate it at first and are awful, with teacher McKintyre hovering to point out mistakes, while the song almost promises a happy ending - but no, the boys are no better dancing with 12-year-old girls than they are dancing with each other and the end is a disaster. Mark's rueful answer? Don't laugh at his footwork on stage - he's just dancing to the new offbeat rhythm he learned that day! Believe it or not this sweet and simple folk song started out as an electric rocker in 1981, played with the same crunching relentlessness of the 'Makin' Movies' material!
'Punish The Monkey' is an odd, angular song with a drum pattern that sounds like spanking. A hard-working minimum wage earner is part of a business that's doing rather badly despite their hard work and the song finds them trying to listen into a business meeting for news, whilst knowing in their hearts that it's never the lazy bosses who get the sack. 'Time's up, sir Lord Flunkey' Knopfler cackles at the end, but this song never does find a resolution - just a policeman 'asking about a smoking gun', although no murder is seen to be committed throughout the song.
'Let It All Go' is a sighing country lament about ignoring stress and pressure and running to your own pace. Knopfler seems to turn on his audience ('You think I'm a saint? Got a job with a pension?') and has a go at critics too ('A hack writer judges my swipes and my smudges', erm you're great Mark, honest, you are!) but a later verse dates this song finally gives us the delayed setting of a Polish couple in the 'thirties'. The narrator is sighing over a call-up for the Second World War, proclaiming he's too old but realises his son - lustful for action - needs to be at the front so he 'lets it all go'. The result is another uncomfortable, rather atonal song and features Knopfler at his huskiest but is not without merit.
'Behind With The Rent' is a rather clichéd song about a narrator falling on hard times despite his protestations that it isn't his fault - that he was once successful, that he's been stitched up, that he'll have the money by next week, guv, honest - but the implacable rent collector doesn't say a word. Alas this song has a rather forgettable tune too, although it does have one classic couplet where the hungry narrator picks away at a 'crumpet past it's sell by date' and then adds a line about 'the crumpet being lonely too and having a life of her own' Boom! Boom!
'The Fish and the Bird' livens up the album's rather bland second half no end. An almost solo acoustic song, with some great finger-picking on the guitar, a keening fiddle largely playing on one note and a neat wash of synthesisers from Guy Fletcher before the electric guitar comes howling in, this is the one song here that could easily have slotted onto a Dire Straits record. The melody is Knopfler's best in years, sweeping and round, sounding like a traditional song that's been around forever and bringing out the best in the musicians. The lyrics are a little odd, the tale of a girl who falls in love with a tale-telling fisherman who warns her off with a tale about a 'fish' (at the 'bottom' of the social pile) and a 'bird' (at the top) can never mix, but she doesn't care. Though the pair of unusual lovers can never find a 'nest' (note that theme of 'home' cropping up again) and are doomed to 'roam' that doesn't mean they love each other any less and the pair seem to have a lovely life for all of the three verses that this all too-short song lasts.
Next we're at 'Madame Geneva's, a 'maker of ballads right pretty' for 'a penny a sheet' that may or may not be Mark's Victorian alter ego. Alas a promising first verse about the narrator's motivation for writing  - spreading 'confessions and sins' so the world feels less alone - simply turns into another tired drinking song in verse two.
The album ends with 'In The Sky', which sounds more like the mystical work of brother David. An epic at 7:31 despite having fewer lines than most songs on the record, it has the narrator talking to a 'soul balladeer' 'home from the sea'. A few curious verses about his lack of work later ('No crotchets or quavers in your books'), the song adds that it doesn't really matter if he's heard in his lifetime or not because he's a 'light in the dark, a beacon of hope'. Clever as some of the lyrics are, this is something of a nothing song with the same rolling melody verse after verse (there isn't a chorus) and rather unmemorable by Knopfler's standards.
Overall, though, 'Kill To Get Crimson' is an album that has its moments. Four truly wonderful songs out of twelve isn't bad odds as solo Dire Straits albums go and you can at least hear what Mark was in planning in most of the other songs. However this album lacks its own identity compared to the earlier albums and doesn't have enough of anything to truly make an impact. That will all change with solo album number six...

John Illsley with Cunla and Greg Pearle "Live In Les Baux Des Preovedance"
(Creek Records, '2007')
Expresso Love/First We Take Manhattan/Instrumental/Six-Blade Knife/Southern Man/Sultans Of Swing/Bright Lights Big City/Going Home/Cocaine/Mrs Robinson/Once Upon A Time In The West/Star Of The Country Down/Walk Of Life/Where Do You Think You're Going?/Money For Nothing/Forever Young
"Where have you gone, John Illsley, a nation turns it's lonely ears to you , woo-woo-woo"
Despite the title, this is actually a live album by Cunla, the folk-rock band John Illsley was invited to join in 2005, which ended a long musical retirement that had lasted some fifteen years. While at times this mixture of Dire Straits oldies and cover songs sounds like a tribute band, with the wrong singer guitarist and 'feel' about the songs, at least this is a superior tribute band with one 'original' band member intact and some pretty brave choices in the material. Yes 'Sultans Of Swing' 'Walk Of Life' and 'Money For Nothing' are all here, as you'd expect, but so too is a fiery 'Expresso Love', a slow and bluesy 'Six-Blade Knife', a nicely scary 'Where Do You Think You're Going?' and even a stab at the 'Local Hero' soundtrack version of 'Going Home' (on which Illsley played). Best of all, though, is a 'Once Upon A Time In The West' played with real attack and power (whisper it gently, but it's better than the real band ever played it live!) We've said before that Illsley probably had more to do with the Dire Straits sound than most people think (even the times on his solo albums Mark tries to sound like his old band, he can't while John's albums all share that same feel if not always the songs or singing) - this time he has a faithful band around him who 'get' this material. The cover material too is unusual, including many rarely covered AAA tracks: a slowed down heavy attack on Neil Young's 'Southern Man' is rather off-putting, but Simon and Garfunkel's 'Mrs Robinson' sounds rather good with a finger-picking National Guitar part. The trouble lies with the fact that, as merely a guitarist/bass player and harmony vocalist, there isn't actually much of John here (and when he is John's voice is so gruff and deep it's hard to listen to) and great as Greg Pearle is at replicating Mark's sound, he's still no Knopfler brother. The acoustics of the French cafe are also a little poor in places, with singers coming in too close to the microphones and the sound bouncing off the back of the hall. Great as it must have been to be there, you also have to question why a live album exists at all, given that you can already hear most of these songs on the two Dire Straits live albums. Yet this album is far from pointless: it's great to have John back at all and the fact that he has such a good band with him who really understand the material is an added bonus, wrapped up with a neat parody of the famous 'Brothers In Arms' cover with an acoustic guitar now up-front and big. There's certainly more life and enthusiasm about this record than 'On The Night', even if it's still no substitute for a proper Dire Straits concert.
                                                                                 
David Knopfler "Anthology"
(Renaissance Music, March 2009)
Soul Kissing/Double Dealing/When We Kiss/What Then Must We Do?/To Feel The Way Again/Lonely Is The Night/Rose Again/Southside Tennements/The Heart Of It All/I Remember It All/Arcadie/ A Clear Day (St Swithun's Day)/Going Down With The Waves/Easy Street/Steel Wheels/Ship Of Dreams
"The cul-de-sac one-way warned you,  babe, with a freight train there's no turning back"
This release is clearly long overdue: David's work has been so hard to find down the years, mainly coming out on a series of tiny labels and as a general rule most Dire Straits fans not expecting much from his records tend to be committed fans once they've heard David's work (just look at the reviews on Amazon); the trouble for him has always been in getting his potential audience to hear, what with his low profile in the band and the small amount of pressings of each LP down the years. If anyone deserves credit from this compilation then it's the legal team who must have worked their socks off getting the various labels to release all their nuggets of Knopfler glory. The problem is though that this album has a feeling of 'that'll do' about it, with the feeling that this is a collection of what's available rather than what really makes for the best of the younger Knopfler's pretty fascinating if consistent work. For a starters there are no 'brave' decisions here so that 'Prophecies' for instance (the real gem of David's back catalogue), the Mwrk-guesting 'Madonna's Daughter' and 'The Sentenced Man' not to mention 'Elephants Washing In The River Of Eden' are all missing, perhaps thought too esoteric for the Dire Straits fans coming to this record. However these same fans are more likely to be put off by all the weak-kneed rockstar-posing-with-horribly-dated-synths of the opening few tracks and fans who might enjoy the superior mainly acoustic second half (mainly taken from 'Wishbones') have switched off by then. True this compilation features some at least of the real best of David Knopfler: the gently jazzy 'I Remember It All' and the folk anguish 'St Swithun's Day' are genuinely lovely and deserve their place here. But joining them are so many of the songs we've already dismissed here as being comparatively ordinary and lower in scope: 'Soul Kissing' 'Ship Of Dreams' 'Easy Street' 'Steel Wheels'...It's as if someone sat down to work out what David's most anonymous songs were so that no one would feel 'threatened' by this album. In truth the acoustic live albums to come are much better representations of David's back catalogue, with interestingly enough an almost entirely different track listing to what we have here as a sort of 'record company choice'. Usually compilation albums are perfect for artists like David who can create great masterpieces but not necessarily sustain that great level across a whole CD - unfortunately this album sounds like the worst bits, rather than the career peaks. This set needs to be done again for another era, preferably chosen by fans.

John Illsley and Greg Pearle "Beautiful You"
(Creek Records, October 2008)
Secret Garden/Shine/One/Demons/Loving You/Beautiful You/Love Me Let Me Breathe/Got No Plans/Crazy Kind Of Love/I Believe/Precious
"Reach into the open space that lies between the golden gates where you dream"
With John's interest in music spurred on by his teaming up with the band Cunla, he took the group into the studio for an album that arguably has more of the Dire Straits 'sound' than any studio record since the band's split. With John doing more of the work than he did on the live album, his even gruffer-than-a-Knopfler voice is a shock, but the guitar playing is almost there (this record even has a 'Brothers In Arms' style guitar playing on the front) and the keyboard washes, mid-paced tempo and rock swagger are all more or less spot on. The sound, then, is superb, but it's the songs that make Illsley and Pearle more than just a rather good Dire Straits tribute band. Admittedly there's little here that's new - this is after a song cycle about the powers of love and if there's one subject matter in the world that's been done to death it's arguably that one. Admittedly perhaps a third of this album falls short, sounding either a little too rushed or a little too self-consciously in the 'old' style which doesn't suit this pair as well as in the days of old. However when this album are good it's truly beautiful. The highlights are, surprisingly, the moments when John steps away from the sound that's been his bread and butter and he actually starts sounding more like Mark and David do today. The folky 'One' complete with flutes is a truly gorgeous song, as great as any in the Knopfler solo canons, reflecting on all the missing years with a real poignancy before saying that, hey, it's probably true of mankind as a whole ever since the end of the cold war ('It seems to me that history is troubled by the hazy minds of craziness'). The gently jazzy 'Demons' isn't far behind either, with the best use of saxophone in this book since 'Your Latest Trick' in 1985. 'I Believe' too is a beautiful ballad about faith based around a pleasing piano riff that had it been a Dire Straits single would have sold in the millions. The end result? This is a deeply under-rated album (looking up the statistics for this album on youtube, I'm shocked to see that I'm the first person to have played many of the videos) which deserved better. Illsley's vocal may have aged since his first pair of solo albums and the pace of these songs may be slower all round, but at its best his writing has never been better, this record proving once again that he may well be the 'dark horse' of the Dire Straits band, the member who had more influence and ideas that anyone ever seems to acknowledge. Believe it or not, this is one of the greatest records in the second half of this book.

Guy Fletcher "Inamorata"
(Inamore Records, '2008')
Love Is Coming Round/Broken Wing/Different World/Stone/Inamorata/High In The Hills/Cup Of Tea/Life's Taste/Cold Water/The logistics Of Intimacy/See Myself In You/Black Sand Theme
"With your guiding light under lock and key, in the name of freedom, for your artistry"
After some twenty-five years of being one of the most loyal and supportive musicians out there, Guy finally got round to making his first solo album, the fourth member of the band to release a 'solo' album. Against all the odds - Guy was never known for his writing and provided very few harmony vocals over his years with the band - it's another good inventive album, full of pleasing ballads and Guy has an excellent voice, perhaps the most 'mainstream' pretty of them all. Sounding more like the early 70s country-rockers like The Eagles and Poco than Dire Straits (it might not be a coincidence that the latter too named one album 'Inamorata', a Latin word for a muse or a mistress), although the quieter end of the Jethro Tull spectrum crossed with the Corrs is about the most accurate description I can give (there are many songs for flutes and fiddles). Thematically all of these songs are about mysterious women in some ways, each of them slightly ethereal and often leaving the narrator wondering whether they ever really existed once they've left him. This is a largely acoustic affair, based around Guy and harmony singers and oddly enough with comparatively little keyboard work - instead the main sound comes with the one link to the 'old days' in the shape of a Mark Knopfler soundalike guitar part that's surprisingly convincing. This is really a mood piece, with similar songs throughout, but a handful stand out: the title track for instance is a poignant ballad, while 'The Logistics Of Intimacy' is a much better attempt at a 'country' song than anything Mark has tried so far in his solo work. Only the album's lone uptempo rocker, the Stevie Wonder-ish 'See Myself In You' falls short of excellence and even that isn't too bad. Who'd have thought that in the 21st century we'd have had so many good albums by so many 'other' members of the band as well as the headbanded leader? An unexpected delight all round that like so many other records in this book deserved to do so much better.
                                                     
Mark Knopfler "Get Lucky"
(Mercury, September 2009)
Border Reiver/Hard Shoulder/You Can't Beat The House/Before Gas And TV/Monteleone/Cleaning My Gun/The Car Was The One/Remembrance Day/Get Lucky/So Far From The Clyde/Piper To The End
Bonus Tracks: Early Bird/Time In The Sun/Pulling Down The Ride/Home Boy/Good As Gold
"If friends in time be severed, someday here we'll meet again, I return to leave you never, be a piper to the end"
Usually when artists get older they tend to slow down, but Mark seems to be living in reverse with his sixth 'proper' solo album coming along with an equally impressive collection of 'bonus' tracks. Seemingly he has something on his mind and 'Get Lucky' is a fascinating album, adding more and more layers to the Knopfler canon just at the point where we thought we knew what to expect from him. For my money is the best of all of Mark's solo LPs, the 'Love Over Gold' of his solo catalogue if you will, full of some beautiful tunes, some glistening poetry and a noticeably darker take on many of his favourite themes. It's as if Mark has just realised that he's got so much to say still about his favourite subjects and he'd better hurry up before he runs out of time.
For instance, the album starts with the usual nostalgic take on Northern Life, but the difference here is that the 'Border Reivers' (who lived in the grey area between England and Scotland) didn't just suffer in silence, they killed to get what they needed to survive. As a born native of Glasgow Knopfler may well have sympathised with their plight (although his family history dates back to Hungary and the family name is actually German). There is a song about poverty - but that's 'Cleaning My Gun', a man signing up to the military and learning how to kill because that's the only we can ever earn any money. There's also no less than two songs about Knopfler's beloved cars - but both 'The Car Was The One' and 'Hard Shoulder' are much darker than his usual reminiscences. The album even ends, like 'Crimson' did with a dream of his own death, but fittingly for such a direct album 'Piper To The End' is graphic rather than obtuse, basically a 'goodbye' song 'just in case'. Hearing the album in one go you have to ask whether Knopfler was alright or whether he'd had some brush with his own mortality as this is an album that sounds predominantly taken up with tying up loose knots and for once with his legacy very much on his mind.
That sharpness is what's been missing from Mark's sound ever since Dire Straits split up and after five or six albums of what could be considered coasting everything about this record is tight and streamlined (perhaps that's why so many of the songs recorded at these sessions were simply released as bonus tracks on i-tunes or B-sides rather than on the album proper). Not that every song is rock and roll or even uptempo - the album is mainly ballads once again and the running times sit either side of the five minute mark throughout - but the songs tend to stick to the main point instead of rambling. At the same time thought this is probably Mark's most beautiful album, certainly his most haunting, picking up on the poignancy of 'The Fizzy and the Still' from the last record with the same melancholic wistful feel beautifully expressed by Mark's ever-brilliant playing. For perhaps the first time there's no joviality here, no jokes or wit to make the pain go away - just worry and regret and occasional hardships.
Admittedly most of these songs tend to be 'character' songs again and the theme is one of poverty and struggle, like 'Ragpicker's Dream' but with more colour somehow, as if we're getting each person's hopes as well as their fears (the large lashings of electric guitar, which Mark still found easier to play than acoustic in the wake of his motorbike accident, no doubt helping with this). Interestingly too these characters come from all over, not just Tyneside or Philadelphia but everywhere: there's a muscly construction worker on the title track, a manufacturer of guitars on 'Monteleone', the soldier cadet of 'Cleaning My Gun' and a sailor on 'So Far From The Clyde'. By giving these characters slightly more feelings except such ones of sorrow and sighing and the odd bit of gnawing injustice these people all sound slightly more 'real' somehow.
This is also a remarkably consistent record this time around with only 'You Can't Beat The House' not making the highest grade this time around. The highlights are many, from the lovely 'The Car Was The One' to the scary 'Cleaning My Gun' to 'Before Gas and TV', one of the greatest Knopfler songs of them all, as he sings of his earliest memories and bids a fond farewell at what sounds like an Irish wake, hoping that Heaven is just like Earth because his life was rather good, really, honest. If you've made it this far through the book in order, with that much of an emotional connection to the man and this song didn't make you cry then you're made of sterner stuff than I. We've been saying repeatedly, throughout the 'solo' years section of this book, that Mark has been nearly there but has been let down by the odd iffy song, the lack of a cohesive plan or an unfortunate obsession with pure country songs. This time around, on lucky album number six, everything comes right and how - this album rivals 'Love Over Gold' in my affections as the greatest thing the man has ever done, as beautiful lyrical and moving an album as you could ever wish to hear.
The opening song 'Border Reiver' is about a truck driver in 1969 heading out from one side of the Scottish borders to the other, with a backing that manages to sound like both sides at once. He feels as if he's re-creating the battlegrounds of centuries gone by, a 'thiever stealing time' in a place where he doesn't belong. It's a pretty song, like the earlier attempts at this sort of thing on 'Local Hero' 'Cal' and 'Golden Heart' but better (well, better than the last of these anyway!)
'Hard Shoulder' has the scene shifting to a car, another gloriously slow unwinding song about a man whose prepared for every kind of trouble, with a boot full of all sorts of equipment listed for us in borderline obsessive detail. He wins the day when he spots another car stranded on the hard shoulder, complete with an awful pun about being there as a 'hard shoulder to cry on', but the song's subtly sad and weary melody isn't so much about the rescue as it is about what could have happened had the next car along not been as prepared.
'You Can't Beat The House' is the worst song on the record, a lesser blues that sounds like al of Jools Holland's godawful oddities rather than the real thing and comes complete with an 'everybody in the house' chorus, no matter if none of them can sing. Mark himself is in great voice though, the deepest we've yet heard him and his guitar sounds as great as ever.
Thankfully 'Before Gas and TV' is majestic. Sounding like an outtake from 'Local Hero', packed full of tin whistles, piano and a one-note accordion wheeze, it once again shows how, more than any other AAA artists except the bunch in Pentangle, Mark knew and respected the traditional songs from centuries ago. The song comes with a weight, as if Mark is singing to us on his deathbed, remembering a life that took him from nothing (a house without even gas or TV) to everything he could ever have dreamed of - and how sad he is that there are less years to go than there have already been. A tear-jerking final couple of verses have Knopfler greeting heaven like a long lost friend, telling his fans that when he goes we can imagine what he'll be up to - he'll be on the 'edge of the field, the edge of the world', in an era before gas and TV doing what he's always been doing. Simple, but remarkably effective.
By contrast 'Monteleone' sounds more like 'The Princess' Bride', a fairytale complete with strings which is apt given that his latest character is a creator of musical instruments born to play ethereal music and bring their listeners hope - but at odds with another Knopfler list of details of the work that's gone into it. The event is treated like a performance in itself, where a wrong note could jeopardise the whole 'gig' and where the finishing touches are added for an 'encore'.
'Cleaning My Gun' is another great song, with the most contemporary production on the album (shock, horror, there are even some drums for the first time on the record!) to go alongside the nicely retro sound of Knopfler's guitar. This latest character is an innocent, eager to race off to war reflecting on all the sights he's so pleased to leave behind. While straightforward enough, the fact that we know what a rude awakening the poor young chap will get when he has to clean his gun of more than dirt adds a retrospective melancholy to this track. Mark's guitar solo is the best on the record, chomping at the bit to get going.
Another exceptional song 'The Car Was The One' should be nowhere near as moving as it is - it's just another car song, with a young Knopfler envying a slightly older friend who has the car and the girl and the lifestyle he longs for - but he'd settle for just the car. It's a love story between man and machine of which are there are millions out there, many of them by Mark himself, but there's something about this song's melancholic minor key, wistful melody and hints at a hard life in the lyrics ('In the summer of 63 I was...staying alive') that makes the song seem like much more than that somehow. Mark hasn't spoken about what made him write this song but there was indeed a driver in America in the 60s called Bobby Brown who raced Corvettes and Cobras as heard in the song and after retiring in the 70s he came back to racing full time in 1990 while in his fifties. However he'd retired by the time Mark first went to America and news of the Formula 5000 races he was in was hard to come by in England back then, so it may just be a coincidence.
'Remembrance Day' isn't quite up to the same standard but is sweet enough, a neat mix of the acoustic and electric that covers the English village past-time of morris dancing (if you're not English don't ask - we have trouble believing this custom ourselves), held to commemorate those fallen in England world wars. Although Knopfler admits to being a terrible dancer, dancing seems to be of great poignancy to him and tends to be what his characters do to remember someone: the hustle and bustle and vibrancy in this song is of great contrast to most war eulogies and minute silences.
'Get Lucky' is a lovely little acoustic tune about  a menial worker who wants more out of life. A restless soul, he never seems to have a job contract and leaves when the mood takes him - sometimes he's happier than in the life he's just left, sometimes it's worse. Living on the 'breadline' is a struggle, but the chance of a better tomorrow when it all works out always keeps him going. A more understated song than many of the bigger production numbers on the album but still rather sweet in its own quiet way.
'So Far From The Cycle' is another mournful ballad, with some of the bleakest lyrics on the album. Once again Knopfler's character is trying to find his way back home, part of an overworked skeleton crew in a storm who have nothing to eat and are on their last legs. Knopfler's details are wry and observant (After losing a crewmate his colleagues are 'too poor to be wasteful with pity or time') and I could easily believe this haunting song had been around at least a century, so close does Mark get to the mood of the piece. By the end of the song they do get to shore, but their poor wrecked boat that kept most of them from harm is left to rot 'like the corpse of a whale', dragged away for scrap 'until she's only a stain on the sea'. Lyrically this is Knopfler's storytelling at its best even if the melody isn't quite as memorable as elsewhere.
Even then our emotions aren't spared as Knopfler bids us what sounded eerily like a final farewell with 'Piper To The End', another lilting Irish-tinges traditional song that again finds him wondering about his own mortality. Declaring ruefully 'if there are no pipes in heaven I'll be going down below', Mark reflects again on the beauty of the Earth and vows to be 'a piper to the end', making music and doing what he has to do as long as he has the strength, a promise to his fans never to leave us. *Sob*
Overall, then, 'Get Lucky' is an almost overwhelmingly emotional album from a man who doesn't often let his emotions show. The outage over injustice and poverty, especially that of the past, are here as normal but somehow there's a wistfulness too, a central album theme that we're wasting time on the wrong things when life is short and precious (even if Knopfler himself gets hung up on a car). The theme of luck runs throughout, the characters surviving or evolving or suffering through random throws of the dice of fates but each of them seem to have more hope for tomorrow than on past albums, countered with ever more poignant reflections of their suffering too. 'Get Lucky' is a special album, by a very special writer, which only gets the mood wrong once. Easily his best solo work to date, it's sad that it was so ignored by critics who assumed it was 'more of the same' - while ostensibly there's no subject here Mark hadn't tackled before most are deeper, sadder, more moving and better written than on earlier CDs.
As for the bonus tracks, none are quite up to the high standards of most of the album (although all are better than 'You Can't Beat The House') but all are nice to have and would certainly have made the cut on earlier albums. 'Early Bird' is a chirpy number with a 'Calling Elvis' style guitar part and an outrageous Newcastle acshunt from Knopfler; 'Time In The Sun' is another reflection about mortality about how the time to live is now not when we're dead with its heart in the right place but dashed by a trite chorus and wonky harmonies; 'Pulling Down The Ride' is another acoustic 'car' song played as a country hoe-down the Notting Hillbillies would have enjoyed; 'Home Boy' is the prettiest and most substantial of the 'extra' tracks with a neat 'Tunnel Of Love' style keyboard part and yet more songs about - you guessed it - going home; Finally, 'Good As Gold' is a poppy bluesy song that sounds out of step with the other tracks and is a drinking song, Knopfler 'wasting time with beer and wine'.

                                              

John Illsley "Streets Of Heaven"
( )
Toe The Line/Red Roots/Is It Real?/I Thought I Saw It Coming/No Way To Say Goodbye/Banks Of The River/Only Time Will Tell/Young Girl/Streets Of Heaven/Tell Me/Foreign Land
"Only time will tell whose right and wrong and only time will tell whose weak and whose strong"
Just as with the other John Illsley albums on this list 'Streets Of Heaven' is paved with gold without ever quite reaching the very best of Dire Straits. However in many ways this is Dire Straits - or at least as close as 'we've ever come in a quarter century - with John joined by Mark Knopfler on two songs (the title track and 'Only Time Will Tell') and the whole album produced by Guy Fletcher! Bells should have rung, new bulletins shosuld have interrupted the world, parades over mist-covered mountains - and yet once again this album slipped out quietly, with many fans not even knowing it was out. Even without the welcome Dire Straits throwbacks, though, this is another fine work that should never have been passed over. A slower, more thoughtful album than the pair he made with Greg Pearle, 'Heaven' suits John's deeper gruffer voice more than the harder-edged records (he speak-sings here even more than normal) and is a good purchase for fans who like the band's sleepier, dreamier material in particular. The bad news is that there's no single tracks as stunning as 'One' from the last album or 'Nothing To Do' from his next. The good news is that everything here is played as immaculately as ever and John is clearly on a creative roll after his return from musical retirement, finding his own voice and much more confidence in his own ability to be a band leader that's highly welcome. For instance there are three cheeky lifts from past Dire Straits songs:  'Banks Of The River' starts off with the cheery keyboard lick from 'Walk Of Life', 'Young Girl' - the album highlight - is a folky song that starts off like 'The Man's Too Strong' before ending up more like 'The Ragpicker's Dream', while 'Is It Real?' is the riff from 'Money For Nothing' in all but name. The album highlight though comes right at the end with 'Foreign Land', a delightful folk-rock song about feeling out of place with John sounding more like Mark on guitar than Mark did! Is this perfect? No - the songs are a little the same and tend to blend into each other, while even with that guitar from the maestro and his rather good copyist you'd never call this album exciting. But it is awfully good - too good to have been overlooked for all this time - and once again John Illsley comes out of the exercise looking like a real talent in his own right whatever his great supporting roles down the years.

Guy Fletcher "Natural Selection"
(Inamore Records, April 2010)
Flame Of Blue/After The Mission/In The Beginning/Natural Selection/Lover's Harmony/Man In Front Of Me/Falling Tide/Little Light/The Forum/Said And Done/Last Farewell
"We gather the shells there washed ashore and listen to their sighs"
'Natural Selection', the second album by the talented Dire Straits keyboardist Guy, is like the first album but more so. United by a loose theme of death and 'last farewells' before 'sinking into the darkness' it's the 'other three's equivalent of Mark Knopfler's sterling 'Get Lucky' album, full of ghostly musical shadows and haunting lyrics. That said, you can also enjoy it like the first album 'Inamorata' as a superior country-rock album, with the same glowing sunshine in the performances and some lovely harmonies throughout. The mixture of the very 'real' songs and the ethereal production doesn't always make for the best album - this record is often at odds with itself, telling us two different things and it's all too easy for the 'I'll be ok' surface lyric to shine through rather than the 'depth' of the 'hidden messages' ion the album (read it rather than hear it and this is quite a scary and profound little album). Once again the similar mood means that the songs tend to run into each other and get a little lost. However when this experiment does work the results are sublime, especially on the album's second half: highlight 'Said and Done' is a gorgeous song about how the future you imagined can never be like the reality that arrives, 'Little Light' would have been a number one hit had it been released by the Eagles instead of a forgotten Dire Straits session musician and 'The Forum' is a fascinating look at how differently a life might have panned out had the narrator spent it with someone else. Full of deep thoughts and questions, 'Natural Selection' is a fascinating album that manages to be both thought-provokingly different and intensely beautiful. Sadly the 'natural selection' of the way the record business works means that 'Natural Selection' one again got ignored, left aside in favour of lesser albums by big names (including Mark it has to be said - this album is both more consistent and original than his contemporary record 'Privateering'). But just because a species is doomed doesn't stop it being any the less beautiful - 'Natural Selection' is a second remarkable record from a talent whose been ignored for far too long.


 Mark Knopfler "Privateering"
(Mercury, September 2012)
CD One: Red Bud Tree/Haul Away/Don't Forget Your Hat/Privateering/Miss You Blues/Corned Beef City/Go Love/Hot Or What?/You Two Crows/Seattle
CD Two: Kingdom Of Gold/Got To Have Something/Radio City Serenade/I Used To Could/Gator Blood/Bluebird/Dream Of The Drowned Submariner/Blood And Water/Today Is Okay/After The Beanstalk
Bonus Tracks: Occupation Blues/River Of Grog/Follow The Ribbon
"After the beanstalk your life's not the same, the harp's worth more than any fortune or fame"
'Privateering' is evidence, if any were still needed, of what a long way Mark Knopfler has come since the Dire Straits days. This album is in many ways a return to the grand epics, with twenty songs (Twenty-three on the deluxe I-tunes edition) spread across two discs- something that he hadn't done since 'Alchemy' (which still runs half an hour shorter). However the feel and themes are quite quite different: this is another low-key affair where the drama comes not from the huge scale of the ambition but from the album theme that each of these characters is a 'privateer', content to eke out a living doing what it is they have to do on a small scale and a low budget. With shorter running times than most of Knopfler's solo minutes (in the three to four minute region rather than the five to six) coming to this album direct from the Dire Straits days is like going from full Hollywood technicolour extravaganza to low budget film noir. However even though both songs and performances are low key, they're not without worth, with Knopfler again full of witty, often sublime observations and another cast of believable characters. Had this album been cut down to size then it might have matched 'Get Lucky' for consistent brilliance, but like many a sprawling double album it's within this album's margins and overlooked forgotten tracks where it's true character lies.
Surprisingly, this album was Knopfler's best received in a while - since 'Philadelphia' or thereabouts - which is odd not because it's a poor album but because in no way is it an immediate one. The songs are all so similar, more so even than usual, that it takes quite a few playings before you truly get to see the colour and shade rather than think of this album as a group of un-connected dots. To be frank I've been playing this album for four years now (off and on, obviously, or these books would have taken a whole lot longer to write!) and I still don't feel I know it that well. The good news is that Mark's arm seems to have fully healed by now and this album is full of guitar - the bad news is that his relief at going back to playing acoustic means this album is nearly all folk-based, with the occasional blues, and almost none of that soaring electric sound that's done so much to shape his last three albums. We're back to 'Ragpickers' in other words, a stark world full of lonely people finding their way, but while the mood is lighter and more hopeful there's less of a sense of purpose about this record somehow, which sounds as if it is running out of things to say long before the end of the first disc. Interestingly there's no real difference between the two sides, except a slight sense of pushing the genre restrictions a little more on the second disc - although they're not 'parallel albums' the way that some authors write or a carefully constructed collage that only works when heard in the right order (a la 'The Beatles' 'White Album') but a complete ragbag seemingly added at random across the two discs. The first is slighter the better, mainly because there's less irritating bar-room blues songs on it
The highlights include the calm sea shanty 'Haul Away'; the title track, as basic and stripped bare a song as any Mark has written, doffing his workingman's cap to the people who just keep going against all the odds; 'Yon Two Crows' which carries on the 'Get Lucky' tradition of pulling at our heartstrings with an evocative country-with-production trickery background where the sight of hungry crows is no substitute for 'pennies from heaven'; the sleepy 'Seattle' (where the National Guitar is at last brought out of its case) that seems to point to another relationship on the rocks and the underwater 'sinking' metaphor 'Dream Of The Drowned Sailor'. Notably, though, not one up these songs is up to the grand trilogy at the core of 'Get Lucky', with a larger percentage of duff tracks than usual (mainly the ones where the band think they're auditioning for Jools Holland's show, the pasty-tasting weak-kneed sort of blues that's actually more of a parody of the real thing than comedy B-side 'Millionaire Blues' could ever be).
What I do like about this album, though, is the way that all of these typically variable tracks, set in all of their varied timelines and geographical settings and a whole myriad of problems, at last have some reason for being stuck together. Knopfler's central conceit of the 'privateer', travelling round the world in a tiny little van (as depicted on the front cover) and doing what they do on a small scale, paying their way without any outside help, is an excellent and suitable one. The chicken farmers, robbers, diner employees, the homeless heroes and the anxious parents waving their offspring off to the big bad city to escape what they were never able to all seem to 'belong' together somehow: struggling as per 'Ragpicker's but with more to unite them than their low circumstances: the idea that they're content to live out life this hard because they're either doing or dreaming of doing something better. In a way Knopfler's characters have always been 'privateers', from the Sultans Of Swing band through to the 'Brothers In Arms' soldiers and bad-mouthing TV salesmen of 'Money For Nothing', content to do things their way rather than whatever is fashionable at any given time, but it's nice to hear the link made explicit here. This also makes the album a lot more intimate and appealing, even when the songs themselves aren't quite so good. Knopfler's gigs have become far more back-to-basics since the end of Dire Straits and this album more so even than usual, the logical culmination of a series of genre-shedding that's been coming and going ever since 'Golden Heart' in 1996. It's for that reason I think that 'Privateering' is so treasured and so satisfying, even though song-on-song it's arguably Mark's weakest collection since 'Golden Heart'.
'Redbud Tree' is an interesting mood-setter, a folky acoustic number that features Knopfler as a man (or possibly even a fox) on the run from some unseen force. The Redbud Tree offers shelter and after the narrator's life is spared he vows to protect her forever. An offbeat and rather short lyric are compensated for by an endearing melody.
'Haul Away' has Mark working as a shipbuilder, a lovely gentle song that's like a sea-shanty played in slow motion. The narrator mourns the passing of a loved one he 'let slip' - the hidden subtext of the song is that a colleague fell overboard and he's wondering how to break the news to their family.
'Don't Forget Your Hat' is the first of the album's rather yukky blues offerings, played with the sort of knock-kneed swagger that gives the genre a bad name. That's a shame because lyrically this is a rather interesting song, with pushy parents trying to mollycoddle a child whose taken the grown-up decision to leave behind and strike out on their own without any help. You just know that the hat they keep being told to wear is coming off straught after they leave the house...
'Privateering' is a great song, perhaps the best on the record, as Mark comes close to the feel of 'The Man's Too Strong' with another sea-shanty style song about wandering the ocean on your own boat and ploughing your own furrow (interesting how Mark should have moved on so soon from cars to boats on this album!)
'Miss You Blues' is the album's one cover song, a traditional tune that's treated more as a country song than a blues. Knopfler's deep growl is well suited to the song, but it's rather repetitive and never really gets going.
'Corned Beef City' sounds like an outtake from 'All The Roadrunning', a chirpy contemorary country song about a single parent trying to run a cafe on the cheap ('Cash in hand, you don't ask questions!') and seemingly running round all day. Sadly what might have been an interesting song turns into a list of items on the menu, something Mark ends up doing a lot when he's uninspired!
'Go Love' is the most Dire Straitsy song here, a slow ballad that makes for a much more convincing half-blues than the up-tempo songs on the album and with Guy Fletcher's keyboards high in the mix. Alas this song too peters out after two promising verses, with several repeats of the narrator's loved one's generous offer to let him follow his own road - and that she'll be waiting when he's returned, rich and successful.
'Hot Or What' is one of the worst songs on the record, Mark speak-singing a cod blues that surely (please!) is another parody a la 'Badges Posters Stickers T-Shirts' and 'Millionaire Blues' rather than seriously meant. With lyrics like 'it's hot in the desert, but I'm cool in the zone' and a chorus that runs 'Ha! Ha! Ha!' this narrator is cruisin' for a bruisin' but it's no joke - this comedy falls flat on it's face.
'Yon Two Crows' is better, sounding more like Mark's atmospheric film scores from the 1980s. A whole group of Irish instruments are heard over the ear-catching opening before the superior-than-average lyrics about a sheep farmer regretting his choice of career ('What made you think there'd be a living in rearing sheep?' he asks himself through gritted teeth) and claiming to be part of a two hundred year cycle of sheep-farmers that has nothing to show for itself but 'persistence'. Even the crows have a better life than the narrator does. It's one of Mark's most brutal songs, more like 'Get Lucky' than the comparatively whimsical feel of this album, and all the better for it.
'Seattle' is also a strong end to the first disc, with perhaps the finest melody on the album, enhanced by some lovely electric guitarwork and some sensitive low-key strings. Mark's eye for details is in evidence as he records about a scene where the narrator realises he and his loved one are breaking up for good, even though at the time his focus was on her not the 'ballgame' on TV. Geordie Knopfler admits to loving the 'rain' in Seattle that makes everyone else miserable (well, he'd have had plenty of experience of it!) and how that meant he bonded with his soulmate - how apt then that it's raining buckets when the pair meet for their 'showdown'. For all the hidden aggression in the meeting and the lyrics, however, this is an achingly romantic love song, unusual for Knopfler's harder solo edge.
Playing 'Kingdom Of Gold' at the start of disc two for a while feels like a flashback to 'Golden Heart' - there's a country vibe, a tin whistle accompaniment and a feeling of panic if I'm honest at having to sit through all that malarkey again. However this song is stronger than all of the country rejects on that first misguided album, with some interesting historical lyrics (Aztec? Inca?) about a tribe who live in a 'kingdom of gold' so plentiful they don't understand why over 'evil tribes' should want to take it from them when there's lots to go around.
'Got To Have Something' is another return to The Notting Hillbillies, a country-blues hybrid played at a faster lick than anything else on the record and featuring some nice harmonica playing. However Knopfler sounds deeply unsure of the vocal, which sounds more like a guide one than the finished product (did he keep it because he liked the backing track so much?) and the lyrics about enjoying what you have instead of reaching for what you don't have are well-intentioned but mis-guiding and repetitive when heard en masse through four verses. Still, at least this song rocks quite genuinely for the first time since  'Roadrunning' - I was beginning to fear Mark had forgotten how.
'Radio City Serenade' features Guy Fletcher as a bar-room pianist and a trumpet, of all things, plays the main melody though thankfully Mark doesn't croon. This is another lowdown narrator enjoying the simplicity of his life - he ain't rich, but he's paid off his credits. He ain't in love either but his girlfriend allows him to have a roving eye so he has the best of a loving relationship and bachelorhood. I'm not sure how 'Radio City' comes into it all, which here is a 'place' rather than a music station - although one possibility is that Knopfler is setting this song in Liverpool which is indeed overshadowed by a huge tower mast where 'Radio City' is broadcast across Merseyside and which is hard to escape from anywhere around town. I'm still not quite sure what I think of this song, which is a clever try at something different, but all strangely stilted and un-moving.
Alas 'I Used To Could' is more horrid honky-tonk, played with all the passion of a man coasting to retirement. 'I don't do it no more' is the theme of this song, 'but I used to' - never has a chorus been more true! This song lacks everything that makes Knopfler great: the thought processes, the committed vocals, even the finger-picking guitarwork which here is replaced by the sort of routine bashing any player with three chords can muster. Horrid.
'Gator Blood' is irrepressibly retro, a rockabilly tune that at least suits Mark's stle better, although he's written better songs about the slightly dodgy character we have here and with a similar 50s beat. This song could be a sequel, of sorts, to 'Boom, Like That' (which also starred a 'Krok'!)
'Bluebird' is another peculiar song but at least this time the experiment half-works, with Mark committed to this blues song, which in true world-worn tradition has Mark speaking of a relationship in animalistic terms:  'Got crows in my pasture, got rats in my barn, if I was you little bluebird I'd up and find me another farm'. Not that deep, but still nicely performed and a nice chance to hear some 'proper' blues after so many blues/rock hybrids over the years. Mark's growling older voice rather suits the song too.
'Dream Of The Drowned Submarine' is rather nice too, a prettier folkier song that takes on the metaphor of drowning for being overwhelmed by life. Most human being's lives are so murky they're at 'periscope depth' runs the clever first verse, while a dead body 'reaches up' towards the light of the surface. This is another unusual invention for Mark that's among his better experiments on this second disc of the album, although it still doesn't quite have the emotional impact of the best of 'Get Lucky'.
'Blood and Water' is another barebones acoustic song with another historical yet undated setting. The narrator's father has 'gone up to the levee' and left him waiting in the lurch for food and water, surrounded by 'broken promises' and 'an empty shack'. This is another unusual take on a tried sound for Knopfler, again a rather successful stab at extending his sound and doing something new.
'Today is OK' is another blues song and it's - well - it's OK, actually, the best of the weak-kneed blues rockers without being anywhere near as good as everything else here. There's a fairly clever lyric about the musicians on the records being the narrator's friends which recalls 'Sultans Of Swing' and the narrator's sigh that he was born 'on an unlucky day' - but he's having a good time despite it all, with one brief day of in the sunshine with his records before he goes back to work. For all the lyric's good ideas, however, the repetitive blues riff still takes some getting used to.
'After The Beanstalk' is more storybook traditional folk, with perhaps Mark's most autobiographical lyrics on the album, reflecting on how life after one huge success can never be the same again. After all, what happened to Jack after escaping from the giant? Nobody knows because nobody cares - he just led an 'ordinary' life after that. Knopfler's final response? For all his adventures he's still 'up in the morning to get behind the plough'.
Casting himself as the final character on an album full of different people all ploughing their own furrow may have been deliberate. 'Privateering' isn't the kind of album you release if you want any shot at fame and glory again: it's twice as long as it ought to be, with a tendency to ramble and not that much variety apart from a few good goes in the final quarter. However for all his talk of adjusting to life post-fame you sense that Mark wouldn't want it any other way and that he's happier as a modest success than he ever was as a superstar. 'Privateering' is yet more evidence of how his style has altered and matured over the years, with another brace of excellent songs scattered through the album like chickenfeed, although it's noticeably short on energy and magic and even trades in some of his usual solo album beauty for more austerity and bleakness. This isn't an entirely good idea and even cut down to a more normal length 'Privateering' would struggle to come close to his best work. However, compared to the finality of 'Get Lucky' it's nice to hear an album all about having further down the road to go and a determination to get there come what may.
As for the bonus tracks, they're actually an entertaining bunch this time around. 'Occupation Blues' is a serious growling Italian-flavoured song that tells a Mafia-style story about the death of the town centre shops i the name of big business; 'River Of Grog' is a pretty solo acoustic folk song with some exquisite playing and another downtrodden employee ('By day a fool, a company mule') drinking to escape his woes; 'Follow The Ribbon' is a final country weepie, an instrumental not unlike Ronnie Lane's work and once again superior to the similar songs on 'Golden Heart' with a lovely melody that recalls 'Ol' Man River' and some fine pedal steel playing although it rather outstays it's welcome at a full eight minutes.

                                                                   
David Knopfler and Harry Bogdanovs "Made In Germany (Live In Erfurt)"
(Paris Original Label, '2013')
Hey La (Sometimes)/Deptford Days/Hard Times/If God Could Make Angels/Grace In The Gutter/True North/Me And Billy Crowe/Mending My Nets/Underland/Somebody Kind/Tears Fall/America
"To you this song I dedicate, you whose shadow's come for me - you who'll make me wait"
Germany has become a second home to loads of great AAA artists who never got the success in the rest of the world they deserved: The Hollies, for instance, are the biggest band of the 1960s after The Beatles over there (much more so than The Rolling Stones) and they've also taken Nils Lofgren firmly to their hearts. Good on them then for giving David Knopfler and his fellow guitar player Harry Bogdanovs a highly deserved second chance (although weirdly enough it's still released on a French label!) Knopfler's voice has grown better with age (he's actually got more voice left than his elder brother these days) and the looser, gentler more acoustic backing of this album really suits him far more so than all that 'commercial synthesisers' nonsense of his early days. Better yet most of David's best songs of the past few records are here without all that filler in between, with highlights like the letter to his brother 'Hey La' and the beautiful 'Mending My Nets' sounding even better here. If only David had included his other first class songs like 'Prophecies' and ** here too, shorn of all the 80s trappings, this set might have been perfect. Even so, it's awfully good, being the David Knopfler release I tend to play most regularly and - while as far removed from the Dire Straits sound as his brother's work - far more fitting to his natural style and instinct for storytelling than all the sub-Dire Straits work of the past few decades. If only an American/English label had taken a chance on this excellent album the younger Knopfler might yet have the respect he so obviously deserves.
A second longer  live album, 'Acoustic' appeared in shops the same year and while taken from another concert features must the same material from the same tour, with the addition of the songs 'Steel Wheels' 'King Of Ashes' 'Cinnamon Girls' 'Southside Tenements' 'Go's Mockingbird' '4U' 'Here In Genesco' and 'Easy Street'. Pretty much all the same points apply, with this longer concert offering even more of a flavour of David's recent acoustic albums, although it's a shame that more of his earlier songs aren't revisited sans keyboards which would have made the album even more worthwhile (many of the studio takes of these songs are very similar after all).
                                                                       
John Illsley "Testing The Water"
(**,  *** 2014)
Railway Tracks/Nothing To Do/Testing The Water/Sometimes//Run For Cover/Darling Heart/When God Made Time/This Is Your Voice
"I'm doing my best, but there's nothing to do!"
The only founding member of Dire Straits to still be there at the finish - along with Mark Knopfler - the pair went through a lot together: the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. It was very much Knopfler's decision to end the band in 1993 after the band became just 'too big' for comfort. Illsley would have been quite happy to carry on playing mega-stadiums and huge tours (he's the one whose pushed for a Dire Straits reunion a few times now, all of which have floundered on Knopfler's deaf ears, in both meanings of the phrase). His solo career is very much made in the sense to have 'something to do' to replace all that attention and acclaim rather than because he has a lot to say and I'm still not sure whether that's the worst reason for making a solo album or the best. Equally I've been playing this album a lot and I still can't tell whether it's a loving re-creation of the sound of Dire Straits (especially the title track of 'Brothers In Arms') or a mere clever pastiche.
What's interesting about this album is how close Illsley gets to re-creating that sound: lots of simple, keening guitar notes - not in Knopfler's league but with an impressively similar timbre and tone - and lots of shimmery shiny keyboards that play single notes at a time, sometimes for bars on end the way Alan Clark always used to play. Illsley even has a husky, smoky bluesy voice that could easily be Mark's if you squinted your ears a bit and cleverly catches the sombre mumblings of the band's earlier work. The result is an album that at times sounds more like the Dire Straits than most of their records (which usually contained some left-field Mark Knopfler composition to break up the sound), with Illsley offering a fair comment on where the band might have gone if they were still recording today. Indeed had Dire Straits released this record instead of the moody experiment 'On Every Street' in 1993 they might have fared better than they ultimately did.
Illsley clearly isn't in Knopfler's league as melodicist or lyricist, but he's a lot better at both than you might be expecting after so many years being silent within the band. Illsley sounds particularly at home when reflecting on deeper issues of time and fate - two key Dire Straits themes down the years - and is particularly strong on atmosphere and small production touches (the haunting trumpet part on the title track, for instance). Where he struggles is in combining his clever and thought-provoking songs with the same accessible touch as his old bandmate: guitar riffs very similar to Mark's run in and out of the album but never quite register, with 'Testing The Water' tending to sound at it's best when going for slow and moody rather than upbeat and fun. Still, most fans probably weren't expecting the bassist to get the one 'half' of the band's distinctive sound as right as he does and fans will find much to enjoy beyond the pub-rock version of Dire Straits they might have been expecting. One other thing that's struck me about this album: generally speaking records by bass players tend to be very keen on rhythm - usually with high profile parts for the bassist. There aren't any here - this is an album about melody and lyrics, with the rhythms not actually changing very much throughout, but then John Illsley isn't your usual bass player (precisely the reason he lasted in the band so long was his ability to do his job without really getting in the way of Knopfler's ideas - something his brother Dave and various drummers never quite managed).
Opener 'Railway Tracks' is about the weakest song here, built around a Knopfler-lite riff that sounds like a cross between 'Walk Of Life' and 'Romeo and Juliet'. The lyrics deal with the idea of a train suddenly lurching off the tracks and what damage this causes to those left behind - it doesn't take a genius to wonder if Illsley is referring to the end of his band here.
'Nothing To Do' is my favourite song on the album, with a gorgeous melody and a lovely trumpet part that are the perfect accompaniment to a song that wonders 'what comes next?' in both a personal and a societal sense. The setting even sounds like another 'Telegraph Road', the factory gates shut, the windows all smashed in and rescue 'taking it's time, despite the mountain to climb'. Without money the narrator can't do anything - is this another dig at life after Dire Straits?
Title track 'Testing The Water' is another lovely song. Using the smoky atmosphere of 'Brothers In Arms' and some nice military drumming, Illsley pays tribute to the pioneers and ground-breakers who 'test the waters' so that 'others won't drown'. The song needs something extra to go with its excellent verse and chorus melody and runs out of steam before five minutes are up, but if this had been recorded on a Mark Knopfler solo record it would be hailed as a masterpiece.
'Sometimes' is a cute pop song with a nice beat but odd lyrics about wanting to diversify in life and music ('sometimes could be country, sometimes could be the blues'). Illsley pays tribute to the 'winds' that blow him to new sounds - which is odd for a song that, more than the others here, seems deliberately written to sound like Dire Straits always did.
'Run For Cover' is a political song - the first by the Dire Straits family since 'This Man's Too Strong', presumably about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars from what I can tell from the lyrics. Some gloomy Alan Clark keyboards try to soothe a turbulent and angry song ('Gonna be chaos 'cause nothing is planned!'), with mixed success: this is the hardest-going song on the album but it's good to hear Illsley tackling a hard subject rather than taking the easy route.
'Darling Heart' is a 10cc-ish song that merges reggae, ska and folk to interesting effect. The chorus is catchy, the backing less offensive than most 'white' versions of the styles and only a slightly dull lyric with all the usual cliches ('Now the devil's making mischief') lets this song down.
'When God Made Time' is another of the album's highlights, an engaging philosophical song debating what our purpose in life really is. 'When God made time, he made plenty of it' is Illsley's amused response to the long history of the Earth, figuring there must be a reason behind it all. The debate about time continues in some clever couplets: 'It doesn't matter where you started from' as long as you finish - the perfect sentiment from a man releasing only his fourth solo album in 30-odd years.
'This Is Your Voice' ends the record with another above-average song about finding your own path and Illsley's discovery that going solo wasn't as hard as he thought it was going to be. Clark** adds some more lovely keyboard work on a track best described as slow and lazy.
Overall, then, 'Testing The Water' is - generally speaking - a fine experiment from an artist who clearly has more to give the music world than a handful of classy bass lines and singing back-up on one of the most distinctive catalogues in rock. You wonder what his voice alongside Knopfler's in Dire Straits might have been like - would it have taken the pressure off Mark or pushed him to greater heights? In the absence of a Dire Straits reunion and a longer gap than usual between Knopfler solo records this is an unexpected treat for fans that, while not perfect and with a tendency to sound similar all the way through, is so much better than you might have been expecting. 

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