Al Stewart,
A Beach Full of Shells
(Appleseed, 2005)

Discovering Al Stewart on this CD is really like discovering a beach full of multi-coloured shells and pebbles. He has a diverse discography, but throughout there's a theme of popularizing history and using eloquent wordplay in his lyrics.

The songs are pure folk art, of a sort, that take a swipe at conventional norms, royalty and cultural icons like the Mona Lisa, Catherine of Aragon and class reunions. Two of the tracks are called "Mona Lisa Talking" and "Katherine of Oregon." If that doesn't hit you in the funny bone somewhere, I'd guess Stewart would think he hadn't done his job right.

He's easy to listen to, with a pleasing British tone not unlike Davy Jones of the Monkees. And though I liked the Monkees, in their time, I think there's a lot more musical soul in Stewart's work. I just found a website that says he's Scottish. My apologies to all Al's longtime fans, but this is my first listen to the man and I'm wondering what folk scene he fits into.

Some songs sound like part of a repertoire for children, such as "Katherine of Oregon," but the lyrics are definitely for the more mature.

"Class of '58" has two major moments that sit Stewart somewhere between Jerry Lee Lewis and music from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Then he sings about Arctic snow and his Egyptian couch. The opening track is "The Immelman Turn," a tricky aerobatic manoeuvre that is also a great song to listen to. Do you have to know what an Immelman turn is to enjoy the music? No. But it sends me running for the encyclopaedia.

At times I think Stewart is a tongue-in-cheek master entertainer and at others a serious master of philosophy and professor of history. I'm sure his lyrics make perfect sense to himself, even if they don't always to me.

Ask me if I was twisted up over "Royal Courtship?" Is this a comic take on the protocols of the upperclass, as the lyrics would suggest, or ironic but serious sympathy for folks who don't have personal contact with others? Does it really matter if I just enjoy the song?

Stewart has made 18 CDs, according to one website. I am curious to know if his style is always as paradoxical.

Even so there's no hardship to listen to this CD. "Rain Barrel" is a swaying song with a curious verse that makes sense if you do your history and find out about a certain period in Turkey's history.

More than anything, I'm curious about the songs and entertained by the voice and music. Have a listen to this international and historically themed folk CD with lyrics that keep you awake at night and music that relaxes like a cup of hot tea.

by Virginia MacIsaac
14 October 2006

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