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Al Stewart | A Beach Full Of Shells (EMI)
When this unexpected slice of dad rock fell through my letterbox I was somewhat underwhelmed.  Stewarts' commercial high point was thirty or so years ago with 'Year of the Cat' and his artistic heyday earlier still with truly talented fare like 'Love Chronicles' and 'Zero She Flies' etc.  A small profanity is in order: blimey!  
Nothing of any importance has changed.  Al's slightly posh voice‚??nasal, precise and elegan‚??still sounds like that of a young man (lots of rock stars spoke and sang like this in the oik free late '60s).  The ensemble playing is rich and carefully measured and Al still deploys the arsenal of master musician's tricks‚??change the chords around, mess with the bass line etc.‚??to make a merely modest tune a pleasure.  There are, though, few songs here that just rely on mere harmony to hit the spot. The only unforgivable sin is Stewart reminiscing on early '50s rock 'n' roll and red guitars on Class of '58;  a stomping rocker you hope doesn't make the live set.  The only other rocker is Gina in the King's Road, but then Al always got a lot of pleasure from girls and it showed.
The robust opener The Immelman Turn sounds like vintage Richard Thompson and the very beautiful, sort of circular Katherine of Oregon has a tune and feel reminiscent of Costello's New Amsterdam and Dylan's Fourth Time Around. This little song ends with a little coda where the main melody is played on something like a barrel organ. More please.  The mellifluous Mr. Lear will probably help you defenestrate your worries forthwith, while My Egyptian Couch will remind you that Al hails from the Jansch and Renbourne '60s Soho school of darn clever folk guitar.  
The press release hails this album as his best ever but press releases always do.  It's not, but as that nice lady on the telly might say, it is really really good.

Stephen Ridley
October 2005