Album of the Week, January 24: Fisherman’s Blues by the Waterboys
January 24, 2016 2 Comments
Mike Scott was born in Edinburgh at the end of 1958. He realized by the age of 10 that he “had to be in music,” and began learning guitar and writing songs. In his college years he belonged to a number of bands, influenced by Bowie, Dylan, and the Beatles. Writing for music fanzines, he developed a fascination with the punk movement as well. By 1982 he was best known for his work with Another Pretty Face — a band that merged his diverse musical interests — and landed a solo deal with Ensign records. Working with regular collaborators Anthony Thistlethwaite and Kevin Wilkinson, he decided to create a new band, taking the name Waterboys from a Lou Reed lyric. The group recorded a number of songs from Scott’s solo and collaborative projects, creating an eponymous debut that featured “Big Music” reminiscent of other bands of the era like U2 and Simple Minds. Keyboard player Karl Wallinger joined for the tour and the core of the band became Scott, Thistlethwaite, and Wallinger. The trio and a number of sidemen recorded two strong, well-received discs of anthemic, folky rock, A Pagan Place and This Is the Sea. Then two events shifted the band’s direction. Wallinger departed amicably to pursue his own musical vision as World Party and Scott moved to Ireland. He quickly became enamored of the traditional music there and made fiddler Steve Wickham a full time Waterboy. Expanding the group to nearly a dozen members, Scott kept the mystical themes and rock base of his sound while adding significant folk elements. The result is his finest moment
|Label||Ensign||Release Date||October 1988|
|Producer||Mike Scott, Bob Johnston, and John Dunsford|
|U.S. Chart||#76||U.K. Chart||#13|
The sessions were prolific, resulting in enough songs to fill a seven-disc anniversary box set in 2013. Scott made smart choices, however, picking the finest moments and sequencing them into a powerful set. The title track kicks things off with acoustic power, highlighting the naturalistic themes of the album. Scott is in fine voice, and the more subdued setting shows off his mature skills nicely.
We Will Not Be Lovers is a tour-de-force, a Big Music song with a jittering fiddle line. Reminiscent of the fireworks Richard Thompson and Dave Swarbrick made in Fairport Convention, Scott and Wickham rage out an astonishing track that ranks as one of the band’s finest moments. On Strange Boat the singer ponders life on our planet with a gently nautical metaphor, a quiet moment to recover from the preceding frenzy.
World Party is a nod to Wallinger’s new project (he receives a songwriting credit). Where Wallinger’s take on the theme is Beatlesque and celebratory, Scott makes things urgent. With chiming chords, dramatic horns, and a clarion of fiddle, it’s a lovely song that picks up the energy. Scott’s lyrics had often been compared to Van Morrison, and he makes things explicit with a lovely cover of the Man’s Sweet Thing. It’s a smart conceit, made all the more special with a charming coda of the Beatles’ Blackbird. Jimmy Hickey’s Waltz is a fun little instrumental, a sort of folk palate cleanser before the next round.
With And A Bang On the Ear, Scott channels his inner Lou Reed, wandering for nine nostalgic minutes through his romantic past. The frankness and spare delivery make the project work. Hank Williams was an early favorite of the singer’s, and he offers a delightful tribute with Has Anybody Here Seen Hank? It sounds like a Williams cover by an Irish bar band, and somehow that’s just right.
Then things get especially folky. When Ye Go Away is another standout, an aching song of loss. Sincere and sad without being maudlin, it features one of Scott’s best quiet vocals against a stunning musical backdrop. The traditional When Will We Be Married? is a smart change of pace, with Wickham driving the action and Scott winking and nodding his way through the lyrics. The fiddler takes a solo turn on the brief Dunfords’s Fancy, another well-timed intermission.
The album wraps up with an ambitious track. Scott has long been interested in the poetry of Yeats, later pursuing a full-length tribute. He sets the poet’s The Stolen Child to music, reciting it with the help of veteran Irish singer Tomás Mac Eoin. It’s well-constructed, but a bit overblown and feels somewhat out of place. Fortunately, a hidden track recaptures the spirit of the disc, with Scott and company enthusiastically harmonizing on a fragment of Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land. It works surprisingly well as a celebration of Ireland and its music, wrapping up the proceedings on a whimsical high note.
FURTHER LISTENING: The first three Waterboys albums are well-crafted bombast, smart anthem rock with a Celtic twist. Each improved on the last, and This Is the Sea is an excellent album, showing off a different side of Scott’s talents. Maintaining the “Raggle-Taggle” band of Fisherman’s Blues, the Waterboys’ fifth effort was Room to Roam, a fun disc that lacks the power and cohesion of the masterpiece. Scott took his time reinventing the band again for the alt-rock Dream Harder, a decent album that doesn’t quite live up to the band leader’s promising previous efforts. Scott went solo for a couple of albums (although as he notes there’s “no real difference” between the solo and band releases), then reconvened the Waterboys for a solid run of albums that strike a decent balance between the three approaches of the first decade. For a good starting point, 1991’s Best of the Waterboys (reissued in 2003 as Essential) hits the highlights.