Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Dire Straits 1: Dire Straits

There are certain songs that make a hell of an impression the first time you hear them on the radio. Sometimes it’s not that the musicians are doing anything new per se, but just that they’ve got a certain combination that sets them apart. One such example would be “Sultans Of Swing” by Dire Straits.
The song itself is pretty basic: a pub-rock song about a pub-rock band, namechecking all the alleged members, held together by a standard chord sequence, but embellished with a familiar yet original guitar sound. This infectious song was the first most people heard of Mark Knopfler, and his little band would soon carve themselves out a niche that took them from pubs to arenas in a relatively short amount of time. (And yes, it was his band.)
“Sultans” is the anchor of their eponymous debut, and chances are anyone who bought the album on the basis of that song were pretty pleased with the rest of it. In the midst of punk and on the cusp of New Wave, here was a band standing happily knee-deep in country influences with their own brand of what used to be called rock ‘n roll.
If there’s a complaint about the album, it’s that there isn’t much breadth between the songs. Once you get past that intro that takes you straight to the docks, “Down To The Waterline” is incredibly close to “Sultans”, right down to the little flourish amidst the guitar solo. “Water Of Love” is somewhat interchangeable with “Six Blade Knife”, as are “Setting Me Up” and “Southbound Again” with each other. (Maybe it’s the bass player’s fault, but someone in the studio should have noticed.)
Luckily, they’re all catchy tunes, with excellent lyrics providing a very British bent on country and blues sentiments that made Dire Straits one of the more “literate” bands of the era. (And like all good authors, certain themes and imagery would turn up again down the road.) If the first half of the album seems repetitive, side two compensates. “In The Gallery” sways close to reggae with a great switch of timing, “Wild West End” provides more wonderful imagery of a place we’d love to visit, and “Lions” is an inscrutable closer.
Dire Straits is an impressive debut, setting a standard upon which they could build. The production is crisp, clean and uncluttered, a nice live sound, letting the bass and drums lay down a foundation for that distinctive lead guitar. Their best work was still ahead of them, and proceeded directly from here. And isn’t it nice to hear a band that doesn’t blow it all the first chance they get?

Dire Straits Dire Straits (1978)—

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