Friday, October 31, 2008

Rediscovering My Favorite Dire Straits Records

I'm not familiar with the entire Dire Straits catalog but I know may way around everything from their self titled album through Brothers In Arms. In that time frame, 1978 to 1985, they released six albums and and EP. I like all but a few songs.

Two albums stand out. Making Movies and Love Over Gold were released in 1980 and 1982, respectively, and between them contain only twelve songs.
They are both full length albums but the songs are long. Of the twelve songs only four are under six minutes and only one meets the traditional pop radio standard of coming in under 3:30.

As I was 10 and 12 years old when these records came out it's no surprise I didn't grow to love them when they were newly released. I didn't hear them at all until years later. Friends turned me on to them when I was in high school and everybody (all us music nerds anyway) got interested in Dire Straits' back catalog in 1985 and 1986 when the eight singles (ya, that's right, eight singles) from Brothers In Arms took over the rock and pop airwaves.

I've waffled over what exactly it is that puts these records over the top. What distinguishes Dire Straits as a band is Mark Knopfler's vocals, song writing and guitar, mostly the latter. You could argue that with the long songs on these albums Knopfler has more room to stretch out and show off his lead guitar but Dire Straits records all show off Knopfler's guitar. Plus, if you pay attention to Making Movies and Love Over Gold you will notice that piano and organ are front and center as much as guitar.

Just to put the points to rest Dire Straits' other distinguishing marks, Knopfler's vocals and writing, are not that fantastic. He's a good vocalist in the same way Steve Harwell of Smashmouth is. He emotes and can get through the song but he's no Billy Joel. Upon close inspection, a lot of Knopfler's songwriting is not that much better than his singing. Some of his songs are great (Romeo and Juliet, Private Investigations, Love Over Gold, maybe Your Latest Trick) but a lot of them aren't. Again, he's not deficient but if you hold him up against Aimee Mann, Barry Manilow, Elvis Costello or Neko Case, see what I mean? He's a great musician but when it comes to writing he's not in that league. When he's gone he'll be remembered as a great guitarist who wrote some very good songs, not a great songwriter.

In the past couple of weeks as I've listened to these two albums more than I have in years. Finally, I'm starting to settle down on what makes them great--what keeps me coming back all these years later. Remember what I said about piano and organ figuring as prominently as guitar? These long songs are very well arranged. Of course the musicianship and performances are masterful but sloppy production and arrangement can and do bury such things every day. The key instruments all stretch out, interweave and draw the listener into an emotional journey, even when the lyrics are a little dumb (Solid Rock) or sound like rehash of Bob Dylan's Desolation Row (It Never Rains).

If you have even a little patience for over-three-minute rock songs you owe it to yourself to check out Making Movies and Love Over Gold. I really believe they represent Dire Straits at it's peak as a recording band.

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