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October 18, 2015

Time 2 listen to Another Country

First review by SMILER's Pat Brett

posted by Mike Walton

My personal preference is to invest more time in listening to an album before committing to an opinion but this time around I’m giving a ”first impressions” view of Another Country. I’m a little nervous about what I,and others, will think of my own words in a few months…but let’s go….!

I know Rod is fit and of sound mental ability, but the time will come when a new album will be the final album. With that in mind we should cherish each one and enjoy it for what it is. That’s not to the point of saying its great if it’s not...but not judging it in an unnecessarily harsh fashion either. It can’t be Every Picture tells a story. It won’t have been recorded in the Record Plant by a tight band who may be drunk and the lyrics are more likely to have been written on the porch with tea rather than in the pub with beer…but it’s Rod’s voice, his melodies and his lyrics, all produced by the master himself. It’s as authentic as it can be.In fact, since writing his autobiography Rod has had an “honesty and open-ness” attack – and we’re benefiting as he channels that into his new songs. In the corporate world people are most comfortable presenting on a topic they know well, it’s hard to speak confidently and sincerely about someone else’s area of expertise. Maybe it’s the same for songwriting and singing – there is a depth and sincerity about these new songs, and those on Time, that would not always have been as evident when he was singing covers or writing about things not so close to home.

Time was welcomed with open arms, the return of a prodigal son…this one is different. There is some expectation now. Will it be too like Time or not enough like it…will Rod have used the best of what inspiration he had left for Time and now give us leftovers? Kevin Savigar did say in 2013 that a lot of good ideas were left off Time due to, ahem, time pressures and might
be used on a future album. I’m happy to report that he was on!

Throughout Rod’s career there have been “partner” albums. Every Pic and Never a dull moment, Atlantic Crossing and A Night on the town, even Songbooks I,II,III,IV and, yes, V…. Time and Another Country fall into that bracket now. Both comprise mostly original, uplifting and positive lyrics,sound fresh and are well produced, have generous helpings of nostalgia &
sentimentality and personal themes abound. In many respects the new album picks up where the last one ended. If you liked Time it is hard not to like Another Country. That is not to say it’s a clone. Things have moved on. The lyrics are generally stronger, Rod is clearly more confident with some unexpected twists here and there (the Churchill sample on “Way back home”
being the most noteworthy), there is an even more Celtic feel to it and with few exceptions, there is a more real or organic sound – whilst no doubt the credits will show plenty of programming and drum machines, they are less obvious on most tracks than they would have been on Time. The themes of the songs are similarly personal but more varied. One minute he’s
recalling post-war London, the next calling in superheroes to get his son to sleep and then shifting to “raise hell when hell didn’t need no raisin’”.

And so to the songs…

“Love Is” is an airy and lively opener and it’s certainly not a departure from the Rod style we know so well, and that’s ok. Familiarity is a comfort. Up-tempo and melodic is always a winner for me and I like that Rod has enough lyric-generating juice left to support writing different wordsfor each chorus, as he did with “It’s Over” a couple of years ago.

The boy has come a long way in how he speaks to the women in his life – from “Stay with me” to “Tonight’s the night” and now ”Please”. The Faces hit was brash, confident and lacking in any empathy for the lady in question; she was instructed to be gone before breakfast. A few years later, on “Tonight’s the night”, he was a bit more seductive and said all the right things, but still the verse about the following morning’s breakfast together was dropped from the final version (hear the outtake on Rhino’s deluxe release) and we all still knew what he really wanted…but roll on to 2015 and he’s a bit less cocksure of himself. He likes this woman and wants her but lacks the confidence to tell her to stay. And this time the promise of breakfast is made. How time changes things. There is a genuine emotional element to it all. It’s not just lust this time. He
pleads lyrically and vocally. And the latter makes it a plea like few others could achieve. I wondered in 2013 whether the yelp on “Sexual Religion” was better left in the vault – but he has answered in no uncertain terms on “Please”. He can still do it...and not just on a pro-tools-aided basis either. He has managed it live. A superb groove,excellent vocal performance and a cool intro. This song has grit and substance. In the days of hit singles, this would have been huge. It’s the highlight of the album for me by some distance...and that’s not to
denigrate the other songs in any way. It may be his best uptempo original since his collaborations with Andy Taylor on Out of Order. He has said it was the hardest track on the album to was well worth the effort Rod.

Rod said he tried three different approaches to “Walking in the sunshine”.The pre-release blurb described it as guitar-driven – maybe one of the other versions was as this one isn’t really. Drum machine is front and centre in way that it was on the Savigar mix of “Beautiful Morning”. Thing is, like much of both Time and the rest of Another Country, the uplifting mood and vibe is hard to resist. Is Rod Stewart the happiest man alive? He may well be. Lyrically, the balding guy in “Legless” is now prematurely grey and I like the line about how the weather “suits his clothes...get it?

After a pacey opening trio Rod slows it down a bit with “Love and be loved” so we can catch our breath. Let me be frank for a moment: I don’t particularly like reggae. That Rod’s back catalogue rarely crossed paths with the genre was fine by me. A small toe-dip with “So soon we change” was enough to convince me that his talents were best used away from the all-sound-the-same-to-me genre. “Love and be loved” does little to change
that view. It’s short which is a good thing and it’s different from the rest of the album, also a good thing. It is encouraging to see Rod still trying different things. And it is, of course, a positive song. What is not great about this song is the somewhat clichéd lyric and the faintest hint of Rod actually trying a Jamacian accent at times…oh dear. Oh yeah,and the old Joe with his reggae band down at the market in 1984’s “Trouble” is now young Jimmy at the bar…

Many years ago when Rod released “You’re in my heart” some discussion ensued with regard to who or what the “you” actually was. A woman, a country, a soccer team or all three? There is no such doubt with “We Can Win” which lacks the subtlety of his 1977 hit. It’s almost as barefaced as “Ole Ola”. By using a Glasgow Celtic chant as part of the track Rod has made this a very specific rather than universal anthem – had Scotland
qualified for next years European Championship (sorry on behalf of the Irish Rod) this track could have been considered as part of thatcelebration - but expecting Scottish Rangers fans to sing the Celtic-tinged song might have been be tricky. The pounding sound of 100 drums used on “Hang on St Christopher” has met its match on this one as Rod sings about one of his passions in life and whether everyone can identify with it or not, you can’t deny it’s honesty and energy. And, yet’s upbeat,happy and positive. Digressing a little: in some respects Rod’s newest albums are akin to self-help books on positivity. They could lift the mood of the nation.

When researching a blog about songs written for Rod by other artists a few years ago I read about Elton John offering “Just like Belgium”. It was said that Rod rejected it because he felt the words and music were not compatible. On first listen, this album’s title track could face the same criticism. It’s a serious topic but the feel is a bit Rod-lite. This is no
“Goodnight Saigon” or Long Walk Home". The instrumental break in the middle particularly grates in that context. A jig and pipes?! The guy is up a mountain thousands of miles from home. A reviewer once wrote that Rod Stewart writes lovely songs about love. He does. But this one strays a little into enemy territory and might be best left to Springsteen and Joel.
To top it all, the track is more than a little like “When we were the new boys”….

It was when listening to this song I started wondering whether working almost exclusively with Kevin Savigar (he co-wrote more on this album than on Time) is the best thing for Rod. These songs have a “sound” and there is risk of sameness creeping in. It’s a hard one to crack because Rod needs a collaborator with whom he is comfortable and Savigar clearly fits the bill,and has done since the eighties. By my count Kevin has co-writing credits on about fifty songs with Rod now (depending on the credits of the bonus tracks).

But for all that, Rod does sentimental and nostalgia really well and it’s hard to dislike this tune. Getting over the initial misgivings I realised Rod is not trying to make a statement about the politics of war or the grim reality of life on the front – he has written about the feelings of a man who just happens to be at war. It’s another setting for the story of love.And to repeat, Rod writes lovely songs about love, so he does it well here too. It’s well intentioned and, in not being autobiographical, brings some variety to proceedings. In an idle moment I wondered whether the use of this as the title track was part of the plan to win back the American market, half expecting management to start a phony war somewhere like that movie Wag the Dog so that Rod would get some airplay...

“Way Back home” is this albums “Brighton Beach” in the sense that it travels way back in time for its source material. But it’s about the love of family and country as opposed to the love of a woman. Although it starts as a tender song about the love of his sister, patriotism kicks in and gets quite heavy as the song progresses - it’s a very British track. This is his
Knighthood song…if the Royals get a listen he’s surely on the next list..but I am not sure how this will go down in Germany, one of the biggest music markets in the world. Maybe they will edit Winston out for their version.

It’s been a long time since Rod has written a love ballad like “Can we stay home tonight” (“Brighton Beach” is a different beast)...not since ”No holding back” and “If only”, neither of which set the world alight. Whilst this new one is of a similar pace to those average songs, it has more substance. It’s a mature love song with a hummable melody. The backing vocals remind me of Paul Young’s 80’s singles, in a good way (which given that Mr. Young was usually covering soul classics means that it really gets its inspiration from those that inspired Paul which Rod might be more comfortable with me suggesting). Yet again Rod has foregone the standard chorus in favour of a single phrase hook. It is indicative of more effort in his writing this time around. Listening to this song, empathising with the emotion being expressed, I had a “how the hell does he still do it?” moment...still churning out songs that will trigger emotions across the full spectrum. It’s quite amazing really.

As a father of eight, it’s no surprise that Rod has again dipped into the well of parenting experience for another song. The likes of “My Girl”,“Forever Young” and “Pure Love” are now accompanied by...”Batman Superman Spiderman”…And you know what, it’s not bad at all. My own three year old already loves it. [Who would have thought that by 2015 Rod would have two songs containing the word Superman in their titles added to his catalogue].The refrain of the title strays a little toward “Ghetto Blaster” cringe-territory, but just about works. It rambles along very nicely indeed and anyone who has or had young kids will probably have a wistful moment.But it’s also great ammunition for the critics. Rod can at times be accused
of being corny, cheesy or overly sentimental. On this album,for the first time in his career, I think Rod risked parodying himself in trying to give the fans what they want. The mid-section of the album with patriotic anthem, soccer chant and lullaby strays close to the self-parody threshold. It is a fine line. He stretches a toe over that line on occasion...but when
the lyrics are heartfelt and honest and the vocal delivery of such high quality, it’s not a sackable offence and he pulls it off. Most fans will love it, some critics may not. As it ever was and ever will be.

“The Drinking Song” is not enough to have Bob Dylan’s lawyer reaching for Arnold Stiefel’s number to suggest an arrangement like the one they had to reach for “Forever Young”, but this chugs and rambles along in a way that recalls, for me, “Things have changed”, a superb Dylan song from the nineties. This song might have a trite title and on first seeing it I was thinking it may be a filler track like “Who’s gonna take me home”, not a
particularly exciting prospect. But Rod continues to surprise...this has a gritty groove and impressive guitar by, presumably, Emerson. The guitar playing, particularly the solo, sounds like blues-era Chris Rea (of “Windy Town” fame)...very accomplished. Seeing Mr Swinford’s name on the co-write credits did not inspire confidence I must admit (his two contributions to Time were on the weakest songs IMO), but boy was I wrong. I had felt sorry for Paul Warren being let go just when Rod was back to the real stuff, but this song really shows why Rod had to make that call. Just the simple playing during the verse about the tattoo’s makes me want to laugh out loud it’s so good. It’s worth mentioning here the crisp and clear production on this album too. Rod has so much space for his vocal, nothing cluttered.Great job. Rod’s lyrics on The Drinking Song are good (even the “tea and cakes” reference which survived to the final cut unlike “burgers and fries” which was dropped from “She Makes Me happy”). It’s a short track and just begs for the repeat button. The guitar playing and general feel on this and on “Please” give a tantalising hint at what a blues album might sound like with Emerson on the six-string. Maybe we won’t need to wait for Jeff’s mood to improve at all…

If you can sit still and not smile during “Hold the line” (not the Toto song), it’s too late to call the paramedics for you. It is even more upbeat and infectious than “Love is”. Not sure how much of this, if any, Rod wrote, but it fits right in to the vibe and sound of the album. Any more fiddles and the album would have to be credited to “Rod Stewart featuring J’Anna Jacoby”…she clearly remains a core part of his sound now, as she did on Time. Similarly, the female backing vocalists feature heavily, as they do in concert.

On the albums closer, “A Friend for Live”, Rod’s vocal is clearly better than Steve Harley’s. The lyrics are a bit off centre and not easily sung…somewhat like “Downtown Lights” in that respect. It’s another example of Rod picking something obscure and bringing it to a wider audience. Harley tried more than once to have a hit with this song but failed. Maybe Rod will make third time lucky for this gem. The words and melody have a quirkiness that Rod’s originals don’t usually have. But that’s why it’s nice to have him try covers like this. He does a fine job. But we knew he would didn’t we?

Overall? Time hit me harder on first listen than Another Country did, but then I loved Vagabond Heart more, initially, than I did Out of Order and that preference changed over time...and I think that Time was so long coming that it was bound to have that immediate impact. There are many similarities between the two albums but what has moved on are the strength of the lyric writing, a confidence in trying new things and a generally less programmed sound. The weaker songs- relatively speaking, there is no filler here - are better than the weaker songs on Time and there are probably enough radio-friendly hits for BBC Radio Two to match the five singles they gave airplay to in 2013. The songs don’t overstay their welcome and I’ve found myself replaying them over and over already.

In short, for me, Another Country has built nicely on Time, taking many of the best elements of its predecessor. I think most fans will love it and Rod should be very proud of it. He has yet again provided us with an honest and mood-enhancing collection of songs. It has been a great couple of years. Thirty-four new songs on two albums, with most of them written by Rod. Never saw that coming when looking at Songbook V on the shelf!

The timing of release is just right too...he has a week or two to hit the top before Adele takes over…and I think he will deservedly make it consecutive chart toppers.

He may have thanked Muddy, Sam and Otis, but I think we can just sincerely thank Rod.So, thank you Rod. Already looking forward to Volume III !!

Review By Pat Brett
Poster By Tommy Kevitt

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