Rod Stewart's Never a Dull Moment continues and solidifies the tradition of the picaresque in rock music that he established with Every Picture Tells a Story. The idea of Stewart as the eternally travelling vagabond can be traced as far back as "Man of Constant Sorrow," from his first solo album. But it is with Gasoline Alley's title song and his reworking of Elton John's "Country Comforts" that Stewart became seriously concerned with a partially autobiographical view of himself as vagabond. Since then he has rearranged his priorities in recording, and his albums, an equal measure of originals and exhumed classics like "Cut Across Shorty," have settled into that fairly predictable blend.
Stewart is doubtless the best lyricist writing popular music. And more than anyone else with the pretensions, he fits the role of troubadour--the single, often lonely man, who writes and performs songs of his travels. Stewart plays songs from his shuffling youth in front of ever-larger audiences.
Thematically, Never a Dull Moment continues nearly all the ideas first set forth in "Gasoline Alley." The major songs are by and large continuances or enlargements of a theme or fragment whose origins come in part from "Gasoline Alley," and are more fully treated on Every Picture Tells a Story.
Musically, the album is also a continuance. From the beginning of his solo career, Stewart has striven to achieve an atmosphere of barely controlled chaos within his music. He succeeded almost immediately. And to insure that success, he's kept his solo album band intact. The crudeness he achieves on record is as much studied as it is technical. And much of that crudeness stems from Mick Waller's drumming. Harsh and brazen, solid and simple, Waller is the backbone of the sound. To add to its crudity, the drums are mixed very prominently; when you hear a song, the drums while not completely separated on your stereo, are always very loud, and "up front" in the total sound. Stewart adds to this many layers of acoustic and electric instruments playing more or less the same thing. The resulting morass of instrumentation is not muddy, possibly because each instrument is clearly recorded. Instead, there seems to be the slightest discrepancy in overdubbing, and in timing, which leads to the one-take feeling inherent in Stewart's solo work. It harkens back to the early days of blues, to a time when instrumentation wasn't nearly so advanced as it is now.
On occasion, Stewart chooses to do a song for his solo album with the band, Faces. And I'd like to say a word here in their defence, because the band loses consistently in the inevitable comparisons of Stewart's solo music with his ensemble work. I happen to think that Stewart's solo work, while always brilliant, doesn't match the band for sheer excitement, which makes me a minority of one, because I don't know anybody who likes the band as well as Stewart, solo. What I can't understand is how people like Jon Landau can put down the band for being uninteresting, musically as well as lyrically, and then turn around and praise Stewart's version of "Losin' You," to the skies, considering that the song is done by Faces, not only in concert but on the album. Further, what of the fact that Ian McLagen, and Ronnie Lane, Faces both, are prominent on solo albums, and Ronnie Wood plays all guitars for the band and the solo efforts? The question I can't answer. Why is Stewart's solo music supposedly so much better than his work with Faces? Because I don't think it is appreciatively better, and at times, it's a good deal less interesting. Besides, the same people are providing the major licks on both ends. And Lane, McLagen, and Wood aren't playing any harder here. The major difference is that Stewart carries this band; he refuses, publically, and musically, to carry Faces.
This is a most important distinction, because it allows Rod Stewart to do the two things he does best in separate contexts, to sing rock and roll with a good band, and to write and perform songs that reveal an aspect of his character that doesn't square with the flamboyant, foppish figure he cuts as a Face.
Never a Dull Moment, like its predecessors, showcases this latter aspect of Stewart's personality. It is here that he reveals the troubadour in him. The songs themselves revolve around the central theme. "True Blues" comes out of the familial problems dealt with in "Maggie May." It is the story of the wayward son returning home. Its music is more coherent, probably because it's actually the Faces! Musically, the song features the chording that Ronnie Wood's strongest talent, along with the fuzzy, percussive sound that is his most distinguishing feature. Wood is a very good guitarist, but, since he's not flamboyant, nobody notices. The song's ending is typically Faces, the chording they do so well over one of Kenny Jones's peculiarly syncopated rhythms, with the sound effect of a sports car going through four gears under it all.
"You Wear It Well" is the sequel to "Maggie May." It emphasizes above all Stewart's commonness, the same attitude that brought "I can't quote you no Dickens, Shelley or Keats cause it's all been said before," on "Every Picture Tells a Story." Part of the man's appeal is the intensity of his emotion, and its closeness to each of us, but its most striking feature is its very lack of the quaint idealism that pervaded earlier love songs. (Like "Chapel of Love," or "To Know Him Is To Love Him," or anything else that Spector did before the sixties). The closeness to harsh reality, when it isn't frightening in its familiarity, is refreshing.
"Italian Girls" takes a fragment from "Every Picture Tells a Story," and enlarges upon it. It is the story of a brief encounter with a rich, and understanding, Italian girl. These are Stewart's kind of women, passionate, sleek, and intelligent enough to know an incorrigible wanderer when they see one.
This song is typical, musically. There are a lot of instruments, acoustic and electric, mixed equally, so you can almost always hear them all. Rising from barely-controlled chaos some nice piano chords from Pete Sears on the chorus, and a nice short solo from Woodsy.
"Lost Paraguayos" is purely picaresque; Stewart here is a rogue, seemingly sponging off the love of a very young maiden: "I like your laugh, and a nice hot bath and your oily sense of humor,--but if it rains again like it did today, I'm gonna hafta leave a little bit sooner." The song seems like a less than graceful exit; he can't take the girl, she's too young, but he's got to go because the weather's bad, "I'm no sun fanatic but it's damp in your attic, and your cat sleeps on my head." But he loves her, "I wouldn't tell you no lie," which is punctuated by a most telling laugh.
This is Stewart's purest expression of the tradition he's settled into, a textbook example of the definition of the word picaresque. Yet he undercuts it by following it with "Mama, You've Been on My Mind." Stewart has a tendency to choose one obscure Dylan song for each album. Each of them has had a wistfulness, a plaintiveness that is characteristic of neither man. "Mama," has a country sound, and an almost totally acoustic instrumentation. There's a very nice simultaneous solo between chest piano and pedal steel.
The rest of the album is dredgedup old rockers, which I for one don't begrudge one bit. The most intriguing cut on the album is Hendrix's "Angel." Now, nobody ever covers Hendrix songs, simply because they're much too complex, lyrically as well as musically. But Eric Clapton brought off "Little Wing," and Stewart brings off "Angel," partially because it is one of Hendrix's simplest compositions, in both respects. He's therefore able to remain faithful to its arrangement, and infuse it with some of its original mysticism.
"I'd Rather Go Blind" is an old blues ballad, which is really all you have to say about it. Rod sings it beautifully, gives it the pain and heartache it deserves. The arrangement is simple, and respectful. The whole affair is handled much as Otis Redding would've done it, and that's the highest compliment that can be paid a ballad.
Someone once walked up to Rod Stewart after a concert and told him he was the best singing. He said that the best was gone. "Twistin' the Night Away" is a tribute to Sam Cooke, Rod Stewart's personal idol. The song is not done with Cooke's smoothness, but that's not Stewart's style. But it's done well, with no trace of its datedness, as it's given a hard rock treatment. Measure enough of Stewart's homage and respect.
Stewart assumes his musical schizophrenia, which is certainly more than you can say for a lot of other people, Jagger and Van Morrison, to name two. He's a singer in a very fine rock and roll band, "Rod Stewart's super-sexist but bawdily irresistible Faces," (as Lester Bangs says in the new Ms.) But he's also a sensitive interpreter of other people's songs, and an equally sensitive writer-troubadour. He makes no preferences, even though I suspect he enjoys the band more. (But that's because I enjoy the band more.)
The total effect of his solo albums is twofold: it affords an opportunity to listen to his more intelligent, more sensitive, and above all more personal side. It also doubles the amount of music we can hear, and, in his case, that's good. His latest album is a comfortable success all the way through, even if lacking the standouts that graced his previous efforts. As far as I'm concerned, the best advertisement for Never a Dull Moment is its title.
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