Year of the Cat by Al Stewart

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Year of the Cat by Al StewartIt took Al Stewart more than a decade of grind and seven studio albums before it finally achieve a measure of mainstream success with the release of Year of the Cat in 1976. Here, Stewart fully realized his distinct style of composing about historic and exotic situations through an English folk-rock style which seamlessly incorporates elements of jazz, roots and reggae. The contributions of guitarist Peter White did much to help shape the musical vibes on this record.

Scottish by birth, Stewart grew up in England and got started as a folk singer in London coffeehouses in the mid 1960s, sharing the scene with contemporary players like Van Morrison, Cat Stevens, Bert Jansch, and Roy Harper. He recorded his first single (“The Elf”) for Decca records in 1966, with some guitar work from Jimmy Page. Stewart later signed with Columbia Records and released six albums between 1967 and 1975. While Stewart’s popularity increased among his dedicated following, the modest sales led Columbia to drop him in 1975.

Year of the Cat was Stewart’s first album for RCA Records. Produced by Alan Parsons, the music and orchestration were written and recorded completely before before any lyrical themes or titles were developed for any of the songs. The title song itself, originally conceived in 1966, went through several iterations before it was completed.

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Year of the Cat by Al Stewart
Released: July, 1976 (MCA)
Produced by: Alan Parsons
Recorded: Abbey Road Studios, London, January 1976
Side One Side Two
Lord Grenville
On the Border
Midas Shadow
Sand in Your Shoes
If it Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It
Flying Sorcery
Broadway Hotel
One Stage Before
Year of the Cat
Primary Musicians
Al Stewart – Lead Vocals, Guitar, Keyboards
Peter White – Guitars
George Ford – Bass
Stuart Elliott – Drums, Percussion

 

For a hit album, Year of the Cat features a unique sequence of songs, commencing with a sad folk tune and finishing with it’s top hit. The album starts abruptly with the sad folk, hauntingly beautiful song “Lord Grenville”, which tells the tale of the 16th century doomed ship “The Revenge” from the point o view of the crew members. It features a very rich arrangement and orchestration with elegant guitar motifs by White and heartbreaking lyrics of accepting one’s ultimate fate. “On the Border” combines exotic storytelling, Spanish style flamenco guitars and a quasi-disco rhythm and beat. The lyric tells of smugglers during Rhodesia’s guerilla war earlier in the 1970s. “Midas Shadow” features a prominent electric piano along with a moderate jazz/rock feel, while the bright and upbeat “Sand in Your Shoes” features Caribbean rhythms paired with a Hammond organ and accordion.

The middle part of the album features an eclectic group of well-produced songs. “If it Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It” is a solid rocker in the vein of the E Street Band and a very entertaining arrangement throughout, featuring a pair of great guitar leads along with animated piano and bass and fine drum fills. “Flying Sorcery” starts with a finger-picked acoustic intro but soon incorporates many styles with harmonica and slide guitar shining through and lyrics about heroic British pilot Amy Johnson, who died while ferrying supplies during World War II. “Broadway Hotel” has a darker feel as an acoustic waltz with some dramatic violin leads by Bobby Bruce, while “One Stage Before” is another dramatic, acoustic-based ballad which picks up mood a bit during the refrain.

Al Stewart, 1976

This all leads to the closing title song, “Year of the Cat”. A long and deliberative intro rotates through the piano of the verse and chorus in full before the Stewart’s vocals enter with poignant lyrics about a whirlwind relationship in an exotic locale. The song also features a long middle instrumental section where is abruptly but expertly morphs into various styles and motifs, taking turns between orchestration, a blistering guitar lead and a smooth saxophone by Phil Kenzie. The song reached The Top 10 on the US singles chart in early 1977, Stewart’s highest charting single to date.

Year of the Cat also reached the Top 10 as an album in the United States and Australia and it was certified platinum as a million-seller within a year of its release. Stewart’s commercial streak continued with the 1978 follow-up Time Passages and into the early 1980s.

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1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1976 albums.

 

Time Passages by Al Stewart

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Time Passages by Al StewartTime Passages was the third of Al Stewart‘s popular late seventies albums, following Modern Times in 1975 and Year of the Cat in 1976. While all three of these albums were produced by Alan Parsons, on this one there is a minor nod towards soft rock production. Musically, Time Passages continues Stewart’s traditional blend of folk, jazz, and pop/rock, with masterful arrangements, rich sonic textures, and the top-notch production of Parsons. Lyrically, Stewart alternates between the contemporary subjects and concerns of baby boomers reaching their thirties and his distinct knack for presenting historical figures an events in graceful yet easily accessible pop song epics.

The Scottish born Stewart commenced his musical career in the mid 1960s at coffee houses in London’s Soho. Starting in 1967. He went on to release several folk albums on Columbia Records but found little mainstream success. In 1972, Stewart released Orange, a transitional album which combined songs in his confessional style with more historical themes that he would soon increasingly adopt. His 1973 release, Past, Present and Future, was the first in the United States and his popularity steadily grew throughout the rest of the decade.

During these years, Stewart began to form a proper backing band, led by guitarists Tim Renwick and Peter White. On Time Passages, Renwick provides the bulk of lead guitar while White played keyboards, accordion, and other instruments as well as co-wrote a couple of the tunes.


Time Passages by Al Stewart
Released: September, 1978 (RCA)
Produced by: Alan Parsons
Recorded: Davlen Studios, Los Angeles, June 1978
Side One Side Two
Time Passages
Valentina Way
Life In Dark Water
A Man for All Seasons
Almost Lucy
The Palace of Versailles
Timeless Skies
Song on the Radio
End of the Day
Primary Musicians
Al Stewart – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards
Peter White – Guitars, Keyboards
Tim Renwick – Guitars
Robin Lamble – Bass
Stuart Elliot – Drums

 

The album’s title song “Time Passages” is a masterpiece on the utter surreal-ness of the passage of time (as demonstrated by the “time warp” album cover). Stewart uses great imagery to accomplish this while the pleasant music adds a pleasant soft rock backing with perfect late seventies production by Parsons. Released as a single, this would become Stewart’s highest charting song ever. It reached #7 on the Billboard pop chart and also spent ten weeks at #1 on the easy listening chart, the longest stay at number one on this chart in the entire decade. “Valentina Way” starts with classical piano by Peter Robinson before abruptly entering a disco section. Despite this dated musical arrangement, the underlying song is pretty good and is musically salvaged by White’s recurring guitar lead/riff.

The first historical number is “Life in Dark Water”, a slow, moody, almost psychedelic rocker driven by the rotating lyrics and a simple, repeated four chord progression. There is some musical deviation in the middle with a short, carnival sounding verse and extended guitar lead by Renwick. The song which references the Mary Celeste, a British-American merchant ship discovered unmanned and abandoned in 1872. Although the weather was fine and her crew had been experienced seamen, the seven member crew were never seen again while the ship was found in perfect shape with personal effects and over six months’ worth of food and water on board. “A Man for All Seasons” completes the first side with a musical a mix of Phil Spector meets alt-country. With a knack for telling historical stories in effected musical means, Stewart tells the story of Sir Thomas More and Henry Plantagenet.

The second side is just as solid as the first, starting with “Almost Lucy, a country/western influenced folk song with good percussive effects throughout. The subtle backing music plays off of Stewart’s vocals perfectly, which reflect the lyrics about the sad life of a prostitute;

And all these changing faces never bothered her at all that just existed like a back-drop or a pattern on the wall, Lucy looks like someone who is waiting for a call she knows will come but no-one else can hear at all

Led by smooth synth run by Peter Solley at the top and between verses, “The Palace of Versailles” is another historical diddy. The interplay between Stewart’s acoustic and Renwick’s electric guitars is fantastic, with Parsons adding some orchestral strings towards the end, giving this an epic feel and increasing the continental elegance at the core of this work. The acoustic “Timeless Skies” has a sparse arrangement with White subtly adding some accordion and mandolin as the song progresses.

“Song on the Radio” is the other “radio song” from Time Passages, peaking in the Top 30, despite its lengthy six and a half minute duration (it is interesting that the two “hits” are also the two longest songs on the album). Featuring the distinct alto saxophone of Phil Kenzie, this song may first present itself as pure pop on the surface, but it really has much deeper meaning and connotations lyrically. The closer “End of the Day” was written mainly by Peter White and is mostly instrumental, spending more than half of its duration in a prolonged instrumental introduction before a single, extended verse concludes the album. Soft and jazzy, this pleasant song is an effective way to leave listeners wanting for more.

Time Passages peaked at #10 on the charts and continues to be held as one of his finer albums. Stewart’s pop success continued into the early 1980s until his career slowly lost steam in subsequent years.

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1978 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 35th anniversary of 1978 albums.