Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Music Man: The Waterboys (1983)

Music Man Discovery Series, Part 2 of ???

In contrast to Smash Palace, there is no doubt that The Waterboys -- the band's eponymous debut release -- has held up well through the years. The band formed in London in 1983 with Mike Scott as the driving force, singer, primary songwriter, and man of seemingly any instrument. He was joined by Anthony Thistlewaite on sax (and occasionally guitar and keyboard), Karl Wallinger on keyboard and synthesizer, and Kevin Wilkinson on drums.

This is not a group that was ever destined to hit it big given their complexity of influences (Van Morrison, Patti Smith, David Bowie, Bob Dylan are the usual mentions), their early love of minor keys and unusual beats, and a sound in which neither guitar nor the ever-present 80s cheesy synthesizer was often dominant (the band initially favored sax and piano or a simple keyboard/synth sound; later, they scored their biggest success with a Celtic folk-rock sound; only more recently has guitar become a far more primary instrument in their sound).

The first video at bottom, for the lead single, "A Girl Called Johnny," gives a good idea of the overall sound from this first album. In fact, this gives an idea of the unusual style from the band's first three albums, a sound termed "big music" after a single of that name was released off their second album, A Pagan Place. As a style, the big music is appealing; as a lyrical theme, it's edging toward the territory of egotistical tripe: Scott is quoted as describing it as "a metaphor for seeing God's signature in the world."

Their fourth album, 1988's Fisherman's Blues, marked a dramatic change with a turn toward Irish folk-rock and was their biggest success in terms of both sales and critical response. It also marked the first of several HQ changes for the band, as they moved from London to Dublin to prepare for the album (they've since been based in New York, Galway, and a Scottish commune [?!?]).

As much as I enjoy the early albums, Fisherman's Blues is my favorite; although, to be fair, it so different from their previous albums that it's nearly impossible to compare them. For some reason, I stopped following the band after that album, so I have no good idea of what has come in the 20 years since. Indications are that Mike Scott (the band is really his solo effort now since Thistlewaite, the last of the original members, left in 1991) has continued experimenting and changing up the sounds, which is never a bad thing, even if some of the individual results may be (or may not: again, I haven't heard the newer albums).

Also of note, keyboardist/synthesizer master Karl Wallinger left in 1985 to form World Party. Similar to Mike Scott and The Waterboys of the last 10 years, Wallinger is the single man behind World Party: these are both solo artists posing as bands. Wallinger left The Waterboys after their third album and before planning started for Fisherman's Blues, almost guaranteeing that some major change in the band's direction would follow given his tremendous influence on the band's early sound.

These are albums that I will certainly look for on vinyl. And given Scott's history, I'm sure that material post-FB is also worthy of consideration.

"A Girl Called Johnny" is the first video, followed by the title track from Fisherman's Blues:

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