Friday, February 13, 2015

Cat Stevens 1: Cat’s Cradle

Navigating the history of Cat Stevens is a tricky prospect, considering that there are at least three stages of his career, even if people only know of one, and many have since written him off as a Muslim extremist. And even though he’s known as Yusuf now, once upon a time he was a Swinging London kid of Greek and Swedish descent who changed his name to the catchier Cat Stevens and wrote his own songs. Clad in a velvet jacket and ruffled shirt, his first album is chock full of dated chamber pop, the like of which had been foisted upon records by David Bowie, Genesis, the Bee Gees, and dozens of others.
The title track of Matthew & Son is a catchy tirade against the corporate culture, notable today for a middle eight borrowed by Tears For Fears on “Mad World”. Something of a chauvinistic novelty song, “I Love My Dog” was his first single, bettered by the pure pop of “Here Comes My Baby”, which gained new life thirty years ahead on the Rushmore soundtrack. That’s three decent songs in a row, to which the rest of the album pales, starting with the cringing bossa nova of “Bring Another Bottle”. The simple sentiment of “I Found A Love” is tarnished by the corny music hall of “I See A Road”.
His latest single starts side two, and the revenge fantasy “I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun” is one reason why Yusuf wouldn’t play his old songs for a while. The B-side, “School Is Out”, is just too literal; “Baby Get Your Head Screwed On” is always good advice, but that’s going to be tough as she “kissed [her] psychiatrist”. “When I Speak To The Flowers” doesn’t get far past its hippie position, and is about as repetitive as “Hummingbird”. While a little naïve, “Lady” is at least a sweet paean. (Naturally, the American version wasn’t identical to the British original, but the CD era has brought all the disparate contents together, including “Portobello Road”, which sounds most like the ‘70s troubadour we’d come to appreciate.)

The music machine required singers to deliver product on schedule, and his next album arrived at the end of the year. New Masters beefed up the arrangements and made them even more heavy-handed. It didn’t work, as besides being short of decent material (with one major exception), his voice is simply too harsh and bleating to pass him off as a pop idol.
“Kitty” begins pleasantly sounding like the streets of Paris, but the chorus is just a little too urgent, with a backing that undoubtedly inspired “Sky High” by Jigsaw. “I’m So Sleepy” will likely inspire same, and the churning rhythm of “Northern Wind” isn’t the most inviting sea voyage. “The Laughing Apple” is an attempt at a fairy tale worthy of Leonard Nimoy’s singing career. “Smash Your Heart” is comparatively restrained, but don’t be fooled by the title of “Moonstone”, overtaken as it is by horns-a-go-go.
The one song that redeems the album is “The First Cut Is The Deepest”, as good a pop song as any, as Rod Stewart, Sheryl Crow and others would prove. It’s more convincing than the tinkling harpsichord in “I’m Gonna Be King” or the trifling “Ceylon City” and its mysterious duet partner. One would think “Blackness Of The Night” wouldn’t be as jaunty as it is, just as the rustic setting of “Come On Baby (Shift That Log)” (he’d also like her to “wash that dog”) doesn’t invite the horn section that barges in anyway. And as before, “I Love Them All” is a snappy ending with a vague message. (This sequence was the same on both sides of the pond, but later reissues added some failed singles from the same period to complete the picture, some more overwrought than others.)

One almost wonders whether the albums would sound better without the decorations. Both would be repeatedly repackaged in the decade to follow, most notoriously on Cat’s Cradle (cue rimshot), which selected five songs from both albums, seemingly at random, except for beginning with the first three tracks from Matthew & Son and putting “First Cut” at the start of side two. Likely they seduced the odd unsuspecting fan, who would only recognize the voice the label hoped to exploit. More than likely, it’s one reason why so many Internet lyric sites mistakenly credit him for “Cat’s In The Cradle” by Harry Chapin.

Cat Stevens Matthew & Son (1967)—2
Cat Stevens New Masters (1967)—2

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