Sunday, June 14, 2020

Cat Stevens

Cat Stevens is one of those AM artists whose core work is the part of a canon that we embrace the way scholars embrace Joyce. That core doesn’t include the 1967 debut, Matthew and Son (nor the follow up New Masters), yet one can easily find the connection, the origins of the species, so to speak. The material on both LPs, despite hits like the Matthew and Son title track and "The First Cut is the Deepest," bear little resemblance to the core albums (which begin with Mona Bone Jakon – a pet name for Cat’s penis – and end effectively with Buddha and the Chocoate Box).

The songs from Matthew and Son are produced in a style typical of Brit Pop/Psychedelia in the late 60s and a reminder of how important the Beatles' move away from the genre was to the rock era. Though not a part of the Canon, Matthew and Son is an essential LP for the completist (New Masters is not). Five tracks in and you're convinced you've found the next AM10; five tracks later, eh, the next Donovan evaporates.

Still, the problems begin with the title track. It's such a perfect pop confection, along the lines of "Walk Away Renee," that expectations are raised to skyscraper proportions. It's followed by "I Love My Dog;" okay, it may be an inconsequential piece of fluff, but it has an irresistible jerky beat that's impossible to ignore (or stop singing). Then it's "Here Comes My Baby" which, until I looked at the label, I was convinced was a cover. It sounds akin to everything Phil Spector was churning out with the Wall Of Sound and was later a top five British hit single for The Tremeloes. It's followed by the first of two songs that jar against Stevens' later adopted Muslim beliefs. I'm pretty sure "Bring Another Bottle Baby" won't feature in his current live itinerary, but it's got a great lounge-swing feel to it. The fifth and last song in this superb opening quintet is "Portobello Road," which lies somewhere between "Penny Lane" and "Dedicated Follower Of Fashion," and has its feet planted firmly in the burgeoning hippy culture of the mid-sixties. At that point, were you to walk out of the room, you'd never know how quickly the LP unravels. Unlistenable? No, but it's like the Pink Floyd singles tracks you get with Meddle and Atom Heart Mother: once again, eh.

The canon begins, though, three years later, following a period of serious illness for Cat, with Mona Bone Jakon, my new favorite Cat LP and for two reasons: first, none of the songs on it has been played to death (in fact, the most likely candidate, "Lady D'Arbanville", an excellent track, was apparently such a minor hit that it didn't even show up on Stevens' Greatest Hits compilation), and second, it's an album that I associate most closely with the Harold and Maude soundtrack, which I'd put out of mind but then rediscovered the other night on a whim. The soundtrack includes several songs from the LP, specifically "I Think I See the Light", "Trouble" and "I Wish, I Wish." ("Don't Be Shy" has never been released on any of his albums.) "Trouble" also has the distinction of appearing in the perhaps most touching scene of the film.

Overall, Mona Bone Jakon is a demonstration of Stevens' talent for great songwriting removed from soupy arrangements or concessions to the demands of commercial pop songs. It's a bare-bones LP with guitar and piano and one incredible flute part compliments of Peter Gabriel ("Katmandu"). It's more of a singer-songwriter album than any of his other records, which may be because it never got as much exposure, or because it was produced in such a subdued manner that it wouldn't get much exposure. Even though not all songs are equally strong, the LP contains no filler. Mona Bone Jakon was like Cat's Jekyll and Hyde moment, and, the way little boys always like Indians better than cowboys, the listener is graced with a far more intriguing Hyde than the Jekyll found in the first two LPs.