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Dave Stewart & Barbara Gaskin: Green and Blue / Hour Moon


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When keyboardist Dave Stewart decided to hang up his progressive hat following a creatively but less than commercially successful run with seminal Canterbury bands Egg, Hatfield and the North and National Health—not to mention a terrific stint with drummer Bill Bruford— he reemerged a few years later with singer/partner Barbara Gaskin on a series of albums labeled as "pop music for adults." Existing fans were more than a little baffled.

On albums including Up From the Dark (1985), The Big Idea (1990) and Spin (1991)—all on the duo's independent Broken Records—Stewart creatively reworked a range of existing music from sources as wide-ranging as XTC's Andy Partridge, Thomas Dolby, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Songs from the 1960s like the iconic "It's My Party" (a #1 UK hit) and The Byrds' "Eight Miles High" were given updated, synth-heavy treatments that, while undeniably pop music, possessed a structural and harmonic depth that may not have been prog (Stewart was adamant about leaving that behind), but couldn't have come from someone who hadn't explored music far beyond the simpler confines of conventional pop music.

Dave Stewart & Barbara Gaskin
Green and Blue
Broken Records

As much as Stewart & Gaskin has been about arranging classic material in intelligent ways to spotlight Gaskin's pure voice and elegant delivery, Stewart the composer has always remained a vital part of the equation. Later albums, in fact, featured more original material than covers, and so it's not a complete surprise that Green and Blue—the duo's first release in 18 years—is almost entirely comprised of Stewart's compositions. The only cover, in fact, is a fairly faithful retake of The Beatles' upbeat "Good Morning Good Morning," although Stewart's solo on the outro is instantly recognizable and something the Fab Four could never have conceived.

The music may remain unequivocally pop, with the resurgence of interest in progressive music and its influence on groups like Porcupine Tree, Radiohead and others, Green and Blue is the most unabashedly progressive pop record Stewart & Gaskin have made. It strikes, in fact, a perfect balance, with an eminently accessible veneer that's layered on top of an album of strikingly thoughtful arrangements and orchestrated textures.

With all but two tracks in excess of six minutes, there's plenty of room for Stewart— augmented on many tracks by guitarist/programmer Andy Reynolds and Porcupine Tree/King Crimson drummer Gavin Harrison—to create songs that possess an easy pulse—no odd meters to be found here—and memorable melodies. But equally, songs like the 10-minute title track demonstrate the kind of episodic writing that made Stewart's contributions to those earlier Canterbury bands so compelling; the only difference is that the complexities that underlie these nine songs are masked and the contexts are easier to absorb.

Up-tempo tunes like the opening "Jupiter Rising" pump hard with a fervent rock pulse, but the changes over which Gaskin sings are simply too sophisticated to be considered average pop music. "Walnut Tree Walk" starts with Gaskin singing around a Gamelan pattern, but when the tune veers into more propulsive territory, Stewart takes a solo that, tonally referencing National Health and Hatfield, proves that while his musical focus may have shifted he's lost none of his skill at creating intricate and immensely interesting music.

As complex as his writing back in the day was, there was always an innate—if unconventional—lyricism that explains why, 30-plus years later, it remains memorable. All Stewart has really done here is simplify that melodicism, although even the relatively short, soft ballad, "Let Me Sleep Tonight," is filled with changes and a serpentine melody that few conventional pop singers could approach.

But Gaskin has never been conventional. A charter member of the three-voice Northettes that added an ethereal texture to Hatfield and the North, it's hard to decide whether she's best when singing a single, simply delivered line, overdubbing her voice to create a choir of stunning beauty, as she does on the gentle title track, or layering more subtle harmonies on the closing "The Sweetwater Sea," which also features a potent narrative by Peter Blegvad—who first emerged in the 1970s as a member of Slapp Happy and its brief merger with Henry Cowell.

Green and Blue may have pop aspirations, and it certainly succeeds, but equally it's got perhaps the most appeal to fans of Stewart's early days of any Stewart & Gaskin album. By no means a step backward, it is, in fact, a step forward in its consolidation of Stewart's musical interests; an undeniably accessible pop album that's got the kind of depth that will also appeal to those looking for more detail and challenge.

Dave Stewart & Barbara Gaskin
Hour Moon (CDR-EP)
Broken Records

Released coincident with Green and Blue, Hour Moon is a 26-minute CDR-EP that contains five songs, including two that didn't make it onto the full-length release, a pair of thematically linked tunes, and one that was originally released as a Keyboard Magazine flexidisc in 1985. It may pound with a pulse and feature a powerful drum solo that sounds like it's coming from another room, but there's never been an arrangement of the classic "Shakin' All Over" like this. The memorable melody gives way to a solo section that features Stewart at his rock guitar emulating best. An unexpected dropout for the final verse leads to a completely altered rhythm and set of changes.

"The Wind Blows Everywhere" is another ballad with a difference, driven by Stewart's rhythm programming and a melody that Gaskin delivers economically but beautifully. A modern look at Joe Meek's early-1960s instrumental "Telstar" is followed by a reissue of "Your Lucky Star" from Spin, paying tribute to Meek and his iconic classic. "Henry & James" is a bright closer that proves, even as Stewart was deserting his progressive roots in the mid- 1980s, that you can take the man out of the prog but you can't take the prog out of the man. It may be drum machine-driven and possess a clear song form, but it still sounds unequivocally like Stewart.

Which is, after all, the point. Harmonically, Stewart evolved a sound like no other in his years as an artist associated more directly with progressive music. But regardless of context, Stewart remains a distinctive—if sadly undervalued—part of contemporary music, and the double release of the pop-centric but progressive-tinged Green and Blue with the EP Hour Moon only proves how much he's been missed, along with Gaskin. Welcome back.

Tracks and Personnel

Green and Blue

Tracks: Jupiter Rising; Walnut Tree Walk; Let Me Sleep Tonight; Good Morning Good Morning; Green & Blue; Any Guru; Bed of Leaves; Rat Circus; The Sweetwater Sea.

Personnel: Dave Stewart: keyboards, piano (2, 3, 7), bass guitar (4), Hammond organ (5, 8); Barbara Gaskin: vocals; Andy Reynolds: guitar (1, 4-6, 8, 9), percussion (1), sound design on playout (1), rhythm programming (2), backing vocals (4, 8); Gavin Harrison: drums (1, 3-9), WaveDrum (5, 9), percussion (5, 8, 9); The Amorphous Choir: backing vocals (5, 9), shouting (8); Peter Blegvad: narration (9).

Hour Moon CDR-EP

Tracks: Shakin' All Over; This Wind Blows Everywhere; Telstar; Your Lucky Star (Taken form the 1991 album Spin); Henry & James (Keyboard "Flexdisc" mix).

Personnel: Dave Stewart: keyboards; Barbara Gaskin: vocals; Andy Reynolds: guitar (1, 4), Rick Biddulph: lead guitar (3); Jakko Jakszyk: rhythm guitar (3); Gavin Harrison: drums (1), percussion (2).

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