City To City
Capitol Records, 1990
REVIEW BY: Mark Feldman
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/29/2001
Few can deny the appeal of "Baker Street," one of those hits of the '70s that we still hear from time to time, but hardly anyone remembers who sang it. The author and singer of that painstakingly-crafted pop/rock gem is none other than Gerry Rafferty, the man who was also the voice and pen behind Stealers Wheel and the also-instantly-recognizable "Stuck In The Middle With You."
"Baker Street" is rare among pop songs in that its most memorable feature is not the chorus or even any words at all, but a saxophone riff that is just so darned catchy that it doesn't matter how often (and that's quite often) it is repeated throughout the song. The tune also boasts a spine-chilling intro with some beautiful, dense layers of percussion and something that sounds vaguely like a flute setting the scene for the imminent saxophone onslaught. And of course the words, though greatly overshadowed, aren't bad either - it's a gripping story of a man who is lost (emotionally, that is) in a big city, presumably London, and the small talk of people who say they're going to give up the city life but never actually do.
But the album from which "Baker Street" hails, namely City To City, is not the 40 minutes of filler surrounding a one hit wonder that one might expect. The '70s were a great, great, decade for rock and roll, but were of course also the years of many musical pitfalls. The most common ones, at least in my book, were drums mixed so that sound like they were played under water, attempts at making grand statements that sound just plain silly, and excess of any type; ten minute solos, endless repetition, too many instruments spoiling the broth, you name it.
The reason that City To City is such a good record is that in spite of its being recorded right smack in the middle of the most excessive part of the '70s, it avoids every single one of those pitfalls. Rafferty is a fantastic songwriter and musical arranger. The record sounds fresh, clear, and optimistic. "The Ark" leads off majestically with some hip-sounding fiddle playing and a neo-Irish-folk-like melody. Then the hits follow, first "Baker Street" and then "Right Down The Line," which is nearly as good. A light, almost latin beat is combined with some cool, laid back singing and piano playing that predates Billy Joel's crooning phase by five years and was undoubtedly an influence. The bridge of this song is some very intelligent stuff too - just when the song is starting to get predictable, a flourish of wild chord changes and harmonies straight out of the Beatles songbook ensues (Rafferty even uses a "more" and "before" rhyme and slightly fakes a Liverpool accent - real cute), but manages to flow effortlessly back into the verse.
But lest we think that Rafferty was acting as if the last decade had never happened, the '70s were here in full force on several tracks. The good parts of the '70s, that is. "Home And Dry" rides a pulsing (almost, but not quite disco) rhythm and some angular jazzy chords on a road to irresistibility. "Island" is a quaint, tropical-sounding folk piece (written before Jimmy Buffett got big) with some saxophone playing that is nearly as breathtaking as that on "Baker Street."
The real centerpiece of the album, though, is "Whatever's Written In Your Heart," an epic sensitive-man breakup song that can't help but bring tears to your eyes. All through it, you expect some thunderous drums and power chords to kick in, but Rafferty shows remarkable restraint that some lesser hands of the '70s (we won't mention any names) would not show in not permitting this song to get drowned in overproduction. Instead, it retains its somber feel, the cool, calming "heeeey / night and day" refrain only pausing momentarily for some unexpected muted trumpet playing.
If there's one criticism to make about City To City, it's only that it only fights off the common '70s pitfalls most of the time, as opposed to all of the time. The title track attempts to be folksy and organic but suffers from a little too much going on. "Stealin' Time" would hold its own on most early Steely Dan albums were it not for the occasional sudden rush of swirling musical layers (one can almost picture a video with nine Gerry Rafferty faces moving around in circles). And "Waiting For The Day," the last track on the album, is great until it stops for a tedious "water of life" bridge that only serves to detract from the song's momentum as a dramatic album-closer.
But hey, it was 1978, and the record did have to sell, so let's cut Rafferty some slack and appreciate City To City for what it is - a beautiful, intelligent rock and roll record that pleases everyone and offends no one.