Year Of The Cat
Janus / Arista Records, 1976
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/01/1998
With the vastness of the Pierce Archives, it sometimes becomes tough for me to decide just what to listen to on a particular day. I change my mind more often than a politician changes their stand on issues just before an election; were it not for reader requests, I think many albums would still be collecting dust, awaiting their turn to be skewered on these pages.
A few days ago, I happened to catch sight of Al Stewart's 1976 breakthrough release Year Of The Cat, but instead of slapping it on the turntable, I just happened to spend some time looking at the cover and reading the liner notes... then back it went to the shelves. Into the picture enters reader Owen Cory, who no more than 72 hours afterwards asked us to give it a spin on the turntable.
More than 20 years after Stewart caught people's attention with the title track, it sounds as fresh as it ever did. Stewart's unique vocal delivery style is what helps to seal this one, but the musical development of the track cannot be overlooked. Some of the credit has to be given to producer Alan Parsons, who might seem like the least likely person one would choose to produce a record like this. After all, the music is much more direct than the layered styles that the Alan Parsons Project would become known for.
In fact, sometimes it doesn't seem like Parsons is indeed producing this one, for the magic that one comes to expect from his flawless production work isn't always there. Year Of The Cat opens with a weak effort, "Lord Greenville," which fails to hook the listener in during the most crucial point of the album. If you were expecting an album with songs that all were in the same vein as "Year Of The Cat," then "Lord Greenville" is a quick wake-up call to reality.
While things turn towards the better with the next track "On The Border," it isn't until Stewart comes forth with "Midas Shadow" that things really seem to fall into place with Year Of The Cat. A more up-tempo number with a crisper sound, this is the kind of tune that Stewart knows how to deliver quite well. The remainder of the first half of the album continues in a similar vein; "If It Doesn't Come Naturally, Leave It" might sound a little disrespectful, but is a hidden gem on this album.
The second half of Year Of The Cat is decent enough, but often sounds somewhat uninspired -- that is, until you get to the title track which closes the album. Why this song is stuck so far at the end, I will never understand. Of the four tracks here, "Broadway Hotel" stands out as being the best of the hidden gems.
So what caused Year Of The Cat to be the album that sent Stewart into his 15 minutes of fame? Some say his habit of historical name-dropping was the key; I wouldn't have picked up on some of it had I not read the lyrics. (Then again, I've been listening to the song "Year Of The Cat" for over two decades now, and I just recognized the Peter Lorre reference when listening to the record for review.) While the historical stories might have been a lark in 1976, the name dropping is common-place these days, and there have been better story-telling songwriters. My thought is that Stewart was in the right place at the right time, and he was able to capitalize on the moment. (I do think, however, that the song "Time Passages" is his best that I remember from my youth.)
If you are just looking to add one song to your collection, then you may wish to pass on Year Of The Cat and go for a greatest-hits album. If, however, you want to break through the surface past the hit song, then Year Of The Cat is a sometimes rewarding, sometimes difficult experience. Once I get to listening to Time Passages, I'll tell you if the journey is worth extending.