Monday, December 19, 2005

[Mark] Mark Knopfler - (2004) Shangri-La

For a first review, I'll go for a nice, easy, melodic and accessible one that will also please all those who think I only listen to Mark stuff.

Mark Knopfler - Shangri-La
Mark - 2004
1 CD - 14 tracks
Total running time: 1:06:22

A relaxing, heart warming album telling us stories from the 60s. Mark sings in a new mellow voice accompanied by rootsy, acoustic rythms, punctuated by his usual smooth electric licks.

5:15 AM, the opener

The album kicks off with 5:15 AM, a track which, in itself, sets the atmosphere for the rest of the CD. The song starts with Mark lightly strumming his Les Paul. Soon, he starts singing in a dreamy, nostalgic voice. The song is the story of a miner coming home from his night shift, going past deserted schools and pubs on his bicycle in the wee hours of the morning. The scene is perfect for expressing thoughts about how coal mining affected the lives of simple people of northern England.

As the lonely miner's thoughts wander into darker and darker areas: a murder, the greed of the business men from the South, his family's desperate situation, the backing instruments gradually kick in, giving a stronger and more dramatic character to the song. This is a brilliant example of how music and lyrics work together. A minor chord rings out together with the word "Alone" in the verse "Together and alone" which in tern rhymes with "Paid the price of coal". You not only understand intellectually, through the lyrics, what is being said, you also feel the bitterness, the sentiment of betrayal the miner is expressing through the choice of chord and the rhyme.

Eventually, the backing disappears a we are left once again with Mark, alone, softly strumming his Les Paul. This is another great piece of composing: after the anger, the dramatic, tense middle part Mark reminds us, musically and lyrically, that this song is not about big companies, not about business men, not a bout greed and exploitation. It's about a simple man, alone, cycling back to his family after a night in the mine...

A pick of the rest

The album continues in the same style. Sucker Row, The Trawlerman's Song and Back to Tupelo are musically similar with an acoustic guitar in the background and occasional small riffs on the Les Paul in the foreground. They also have in common that they are all about opposites. Sucker Row is about the phenomena of people (suckers) in the US, sitting in rows in front of coin machines (such as the one featured on the CD cover) in the hope of making some easy money. While this behaviour is presented as pathetic, the song also suggests, very subtely, that these simple people are actually the most honest ones: "I never look down on a sucker stake; They all pay the bills". Back to Tupelo, my personal favourite of the album, has a similar subject: young talented musicians who are taken over by a desire to go to Hollywood. Words and music are perfectly adjusted in the chorus "Oh, it's a ways to go; Back to Tupelo" meaning 'Go for it, if you like, but the way back home is difficult'.

The Trawlerman's Song is a more up-tempo track with a strange mixture of melancholy and happiness: the story of a sailor and his journeys with his mates who simply wants to come home to his beloved. This song finishes on an intreeging outro where Mark sings a very light and cheerful "La la la" yet adding more than a touch of sadness with his guitar notes. This leaves everything very much open to your own free interpretation which is one of the best things about music.

The title track Our Shangri-La marks a turning point in the album. In Our Shangri-La and Everybody Pays, the Les Paul disappears and 'Spaghetti guitar' takes its place: the kind of sound you'd expect to hear in Western movies. Mark uses that kind of imagery to express other ideas. The album continues with more varied tracks but of equal quality and interest both musically and lyrically. I'll let you discover those on your own. I hope my views on the first tracks will insite you to analyse them in detail - they have lots of hidden subtleties

A word about the artist

Mark Knopfler is, of course, better known for his guitar hero days with Dire Straits. For those of you who know that, I urge you to listen to this album with an open mind. Do not expect impressive guitar solos, you will not find any.
For those who are not familiar with Mark's earlier work, simply enjoy (and comment!). I'm always fascinated to hear what people think of Mark when they start with his later work.


15:15 AM5:54
Boom, Like That
Sucker Row
The Trawlerman's Song
Back to Tupelo
Our Shangri-La
Everybody Pays
Song for Sonny Liston
Whoop De Doo
Postcards from Paraguay
All That Matters
Stand up Guy
Donegan's Gone
Don't Crash the Ambulance