Sunday, 15 July 2007

Top 100 Albums - #91: Shamrock Diaries (1985)

Chris Rea makes his first of three appearances on the chart with the album that began his assaults on the UK chart that culminated four years later in the critical and commercial success of The Road To Hell.

Although Rea had been recording since 1978, nearly all of his previous efforts received mixed reviews and most didn't sell as a result. His début, Whatever Happened To Benny Santini? (1978) - a reference to the nom de guerre the studio tried to make him use - was a middle-of-the-road, ballad-rock album on which the only distinctive feature was Rea's gravelly, weary baritone. His subsequent efforts, from Deltics (1979) to Wired To The Moon (1984) all faired much the same and to this day are quite rare because of Rea's subsequent success. Still recording at a relentless pace - at the rate of an album a year, something very usual in the 21st century - Rea was honing his rock-blues skills which would influence the more successful follow-up On The Beach (1986).

The album starts brightly with 'Steel River', probably a reference to Rea's home town of Middlesborough which he would return to in 'The Road To Hell (Part 2)'. The problem with this, to get straight to the point, is that it's too long, the female vocalists don't really fit and it's not as faithful to Rea's blues roots as some of the numbers. It's an average number designed for an American audience, which is rather stupid since Rea's real source of fame lay in the UK and to a lesser extent Europe. Much better is 'Stainsby Girls'. Though this is not a blues song, it features heavily bluesy guitar, along with some good mid-80s drumming. It's a middle-of-the-road love song which Rea's vocals transform into a pretty decent number with a catchy chorus.

'Chisel Hill' turns things down a bit with a subdued e-piano riff, but the quality is sustained, if not bettered. This is a simple, heartfelt guitar ballad, the sort of thing you'd listen to on a cool evening or driving in an open-top car in the summer countryside. Rea's guitar work is sensitive and combines swellingly with both piano and vocals to produce a sure-fire, laid-back winner. 'Josephine', however, returns to the old mistakes. Opening like Iona's 'View Of The Islands', this song about his eldest daughter can't make up its mind as to whether it's a blues song, a folk song, or a ballad. Rea doesn't seem too sure either, which puts a damper on the whole thing.

'One Golden Rule' establishes the feel of the rest of the album. It's softly spoken at first, before building and swelling to a classic 80s pop rock climax. The echoing refrain One golden rule/ One golden rule/ I hear you say/ One golden rule sees Rea get the female vocalists right, and the instrumental section in the middle third is very well-timed and not too showy. The final verse contains some of his best lyrics of this period:

They can teach you to swim, they don't speak of the danger
They tell you the truth, but they never say why
But you're on ice that is thin, and they tell you it's winter
With our one golden rule - the truth is a lie

'All Summer Long' has a reputation as one of Rea's 'summer anthems' which he seems intrinsically able to craft (cf. 'On The Beach'). And it's fairly easy to say why. The unusual rhythm have an almost calypso influence, the lyrics are simplistic and subdued, and are in most cases littered with enough summer jargon to disguise their relative inanity. This is, in fact, a good effort for Rea regardless of its time, as is the more bluesy 'Stone'. Again, this is blues not in the 12-bar sense, but in the use of guitar effects and repeating choruses. Lines like Without your love I'm just a stone may seem clichéd to you and me, but (a) in the 1980s this didn't matter; and (b) it isn't enough to impinge on the overall quality of the song.

The title track is one of the weakest on the album. It starts in the same way as 'Steel River', with a few bars of piano before Rea's voice kicks in. But there is no vocal or rhythmic hook here, and for all the decent sax parts thrown in for good measure, this feels both humdrum and a little bland, like Rea is rambling through a book of poetry. There is certaintly no indication of the meaning of the title, which makes it a strange choice for the title of the album.

This slip-up is quickly corrected, however, with the best song on the whole album. 'Love Turns To Lies' combines the best of Shamrock Diaries so far - piano intros, bluesy guitars, simple 80s drumming (possibly electronic ones) - and adds the theme of lost love and, for the first time, memorable lyrics. Whereas on previous songs, Rea's drawling voice acted merely as a means to explore the instrumental qualities of his writings, here it takes charge - as it must to deliver such a chorus as this:

What's that you say?
You were going to leave me anyway?
Any fool can see
See what you've done to me
And your love turns to lies

It's a masterpiece of Rea's genre, combining 80s production and musicality - e.g. the use of synthesisers - with distinctive blues-style guitar work and of course, Rea's gravelly delivery. The use of synthesisers would prove influential, as on subsequent records Rea would attempt to synthesise his brand of blues with dance-pop, which produced... interesting results.

It's a shame, then, that having set the bar a little higher, he finishes the album on a downer with the relatively banal 'Hired Gun'. Like 'Steel River', it's way too long - the longest on the album, clocking in at 8:03. The slide guitar is lost because Rea's voice is too subdued and stuck in the low registers to justify its use. Little else can be said since, with these qualities out of place, little can be done to rehabilitate it.

It's easy to see hints of Rea's later work in Shamrock Diaries. It marks the beginning of his coming-of-age as a lyricist; it touches on the dark side of life (e.g. 'Love Turns To Lies') which would form the basis of The Road To Hell; and it marks the start of his dabbling with dance music which would be showcased on albums like The Blue Café (1998). It was the record that got him noticed, and in many cases this record is worth a listen. It is by no means a perfect album; the production is sparse, and many of the songs are formulaic to the point of beginning in the same way (if not the same chords). Nevertheless, it's a good record to dip into now and again, even though it should never be seen as the ultimate example of Rea's abilities.

3.70 out of 5

No comments: