To truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts….
On June 9, 1992, Fontana Records released an album called Ferment from a new band called Catherine Wheel. The disc managed to be as noisy and distortion-riddled as Jesus & Mary Chain without sacrificing an ounce in the way of melodicism. It was a sound that had the capacity to compel both popsters and metalheads, and it richly deserved every bit of the four and a half stars it was awarded by the AllMusic Guide, if not more.
The centerpiece of this dynamic new outfit was one Rob Dickinson, whose main claim to fame until then was that his cousin was Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden. It wasn’t hard to envision even bigger things for this latest Dickinson, though – his searing intensity and his deftness as a songwriter certainly guaranteed major rock stardom. (Okay, maybe “guarantee” is a bit much, but at that point in time actual talent counted for more than it does now, so there was reason to hope a little, at the least.)
Over the next eight years CW produced four more outstanding studio CDs (plus an outtakes release) that somehow or another failed to explode in the public consciousness. The how, frankly, remains a mystery. They had sufficient (if not overwhelming) promotional support, did cool videos, and early on enjoyed tremendous critical acclaim. (Later they endured widespread critical indifference, sadly, culminating in the desperately unfair panning of their swan song, 2000’s Wishville.) Their worst effort was fantastic, and even their outtakes disc, Like Cats and Dogs, was substantially better than most bands’ A-games.
We all know bands that deserved better than they got, and some of us have even subjected ourselves to the misery of developing lists of the best bands that never made it. It’s a long and tragic list, to be sure, and sitting right at the very top is Catherine Wheel. Oh, it’s not that never made it at all. As I say, a lot of critics wrote nice things, they had some videos played on MTV, they were very influential (apparently Death Cab for Cutie and Interpol have said that without CW their music wouldn’t even exist) and they even sold a few records along the way. But this is all pretty tame compared to the outrageous, over-the-top fame their music deserved.
So when they called it quits after the Wishville tour (and actually, they didn’t even do that much, they just sort of … quit) I faced the kind of despair that I think every real music lover out there has felt. I couldn’t blame them, but when Catherine Wheel turned off the lights it hurt – palpably hurt – to know that those six brilliant discs were all I was ever going to get.
Fresh Wine for the Horses
Then followed many years of silence from Rob Dickinson. Until 2008, when he (re)released his first solo CD. He had issued Fresh Wine for the Horses in 2005 to very little fanfare, and it didn’t help when his label got out of the new music business. So last year he took another shot, this time adding a track, moving some things around and tacking on a second disc featuring new versions of six Catherine Wheel cuts.
The result, Fresh Wine for the Horses/Nude, is 2008’s CD of the Year.
As with the best of Catherine Wheel, FWftH/N excels due to its balance of power and beauty, its quiet intellect and the intuitive perfection of its performances and production. The first half of the album is defined by some of the most striking love songs I’ve ever heard. Let’s be clear right off the bat that I’m no fan of cheap, manufactured sentimentality. Anyone can write a love song – and if you don’t believe it, go turn on the radio right now and give it 15 seconds – but nearly all of them are shallow, prefabricated tripe. On the other hand, a love song that’s earnest, honest and heart-wrenchingly beautiful is rare treasure.
It’s a special trick when the writer is a guy. Pardon my momentary dip into normative gender roles, if you will, but the expression of emotion is commonly seen as a “feminine” trait. To give full rein to the heart without compromising one’s masculinity, well, many (including myself) have tried and failed.
I can’t speak for others, but maybe, just maybe, so many men have a hard time giving in to the passion of their emotions because our popular culture offers them so little in the way of authentic appeal. It’s not that we’re ashamed to feel, it’s that we’re instinctively alienated by the artificiality of the Hallmark demons sent to hack at our heartstrings.
Just a thought.
Not only does Dickinson pull it off in the lead track, “My Name is Love,” he does it again on cut two, “Oceans,” a song that’s as clever and self-effacing as it is sweet and haunting. Then, for the hell of it, he does it again on the third song, “The End of the World.” Bang bang bang, three songs in a row that the smartest, most critically informed woman in the world would be honored, to the point of tears, to have performed for her. These aren’t just great love songs, they’re epic love songs, each among the greatest I’ve encountered in my life, and after three songs Dickinson has stripped away the pose, has annihilated the defenses we’ve erected against the Sentimental Product, the emotional Cheez-Whiz of the corporate meaning manufacturers, leaving us face to face with the possibility of loving something, someone, that much, that genuinely, that finally.
The assault on the inauthenticity is just beginning, as “Bathe Away” pokes at the way we betray our beauty. Then, in track five, we hit the best lines of the entire disc, and perhaps of Dickinson’s entire career. So simple, so elemental – “you just gotta smile / and hang out with intelligent people…” All the wisdom from all the zen masters in the history of the world can’t provide much in the way of better advice for living in a complex, way-too-modern world.
At this point something else remarkable happens: we ease into the seventh Catherine Wheel CD that I never got. On “The Storm” and “Handsome” the tone reverts from quiet and singer/songwriterish to the noisy and aggressive sound that marked Dickinson’s work throughout the ’90s. This is followed by “Bad Beauty,” which dips into the sort of acoustic introspection that typified the last half of 1997’s Adam and Eve. In fact, tracks 8-11 are very reminiscent of that particular disc and its musical denoument, coasting serenely from 30,000 feet down through the clouds at sunset toward a nearly noiseless landing.
Dickinson caps the disc off with a breathtakingly beautiful cover of Warren Zevon’s “Mutineer,” a song that wouldn’t be at all out of place on a John Hiatt album. It’s a track with one and only one flaw – it only lasts two minutes.
Finally, Nude, which features “Black Metallic,” “Crank,” “Ma Solituda,” “Show Me Mary,” “The Nude” and “I Want to Touch You.” These takes range from stripped down, unplugged versions of the anything-but-unplugged originals to more fully instrumented reinterpretations to fairly faithful performances that are simply quieter to the achingly gorgeous acoustic rework of “I Want to Touch You.” The original version was a full-on distortion-rocker from Ferment, but here Dickinson slows it down, tears away the sonic wall and goes in search of the ballad at the soul of the idea. The original was powerfully sensual. The remake is plaintive and vulnerable. The original was about sex. The cover is about love, and here Fresh Wine for the Horses exits by the same door it entered.
As incredible as Rob Dickinson was fronting Catherine Wheel during the 1990s, he has, eight years on, produced what is unquestionably his finest work to date. It’s all that CW was, plus several years of maturity and a richer perspective than he was able to bring to even his greatest moments with the band.
Fresh Wine for the Horses is not only the CD of the Year, it’s one of the very finest efforts of the decade so far. With luck, we’ll hear more – much, much more – from Dickinson in the coming years. He’s promised a new one in 2009 – fingers crossed…
Sample and Purchase
The Best CDs of 2008