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Dire Straits: On Every Street

John Kelman By

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Dire Straits—On Every StreetDire Straits
On Every Street
universal Music Japan
2013 (1991)

After a lengthy hiatus, Rediscovery returns with a Japanese SHM CD edition of Dire Straits' final studio record, 1991's On Every Street. While many folks who bought it on the strength of the mega-selling Brothers in Arms (Warner Bros., 1985)—which contained so many hits so (still) consistently overplayed that, for some, it's taken literally decades to begin loving it again—were disappointed at On Every Street's relative lack of radio-friendly hits and (worse!!) more country-inflected undertones, for me it completely restored my faith in Knopfler as a songwriter and bandleader. The one thing that had never lost its potency was his guitar work, and his playing on Brothers in Arms was as good as ever.

Emerging in the late '70s, Knopfler made it immediately clear with the group's debut, Dire Straits (Warner Bros., 1978), that despite the still popular low-fi punk and, to a lesser extent, new wave, it was once again okay to be a guitar hero—albeit, in Knopfler's case, one with none of the usual posturing or histrionics. If anything, the amiable, low-key Knopfler was the antithesis of the guitar hero...except damn, that guy could play. And over the course of three more studio records and one live double album, Dire Straits, with Knopfler at the helm as lead guitarist, lead singer and songwriter, went from strength to strength and success to success, evolving into a group at which its first two albums could only hint.

Not that Brothers in Arms was bad; far from it. The simple, singsong nature of "So Far Away" was so eminently catchy and subversively deep that, when he revisited it on his live duo record with Emmylou Harris, Real Live Roadrunning (Warner Bros/Nonesuch, 2006), all the years of it being overplayed were instantly forgiven, as Knopfler's relaxed vocal delivery meshed perfectly (and, perhaps, surprisingly) with Harris' sweet harmonies. A refreshing reminder of just how strong that song really was, Brothers in Arms' title track has fared the test of time even better; capable of raising those little hairs on the back of the neck every time Knopfler solos on his thick-toned, heavily overdriven Les Paul—as ever, all the better for the sound of flesh rather than pick on string—in between verses of despair...optimism...and hope. The almost naive innocence of "Why Worry" (also covered with Harris) remains compelling too, while the atypically synth-driven, reggae-tinged "Ride Across the River" and more folkloric "The Man's Too Strong" demonstrate that, despite an overall simplification of his approach to prose and storytelling on Brothers in Arms, Knopfler still had the ability to captivate—and on many levels.

But you've got to give Knopfler huge credit for having the cojones to follow up the biggest record of his career—charting at #1 worldwide, it is the eighth-bestselling album in UK history, went nine times platinum in the USA and, at last count, has sold over thirty million copies worldwide—with a collection of a dozen new songs that, while as catchy as ever (for some, like yours truly, perhaps even more so), eschewed obvious radio friendly hits and, while selling well on the back of Brothers in Arms, performed far less well. Mind you, even single platinum and reaching #1 on many countries' charts (though only #12 on the US Billboard chart, with only two of its six singles charting moderately well in more than a few countries) would be considered a major accomplishment for any group, but after Brothers in Arms it as akin to Michael Jackson's Bad (Epic, 1987)— which, after the massive success of the 65 million-selling Off the Wall (Epic, 1979) and 45 million of Thriller (Epic, 1982), was considered a commercial flop at a measly 30 million. Go figure.

Still, Mark Knopfler was never Michael Jackson and, while it is certainly presumptive to suggest so, based on the relatively low-key solo career that has followed—with a creative consistency that puts him in league with another outstanding guitarist and singer/songwriter, Richard Thompson—it certainly seems that, following Brothers in Arms' massive success and a financial gain that would set any prudent musician up for life, Knopfler viewed becoming a megastar as nothing less than giving him the freedom to do whatever he wanted.

Knopfler has never lost sight of delivering multilayered songs of poetic depth and instrumental perfection—perhaps largely not mega-hit capable but appealing nevertheless, and often so catchy and hook-laden that you can't get them out of your head. He has manage to build a more low-profile but still well-respected career that—between soundtrack work for films like Cal (Vertigo, 1984), Last Exit to Brooklyn (Warner Bros., 1989) and A Shot at Glory (Mercury, 2002); solo albums including Sailing to Philadelphia (Warner Bros., 2000), Shangri-La (Warner Bros., 2004) and the recent Tracker (Verve, 2015); and collaborations with the likes of Emmylou Harris, Chet Atkins, Bob Dylan and Randy Newman—has to be about as personally satisfying as any career could—or, at least, should—be.

But the road away from Dire Straits towards a less arena-sized career—despite the massive world tour of arenas and outdoor stadiums captured on On The Night (Warner Bros., 1993), the group's official swan song—all really began with On Every Street.

By the time of On Every Street, Dire Straits had morphed into a completely different band to that which recorded its successful 1978 debut. Brother and rhythm guitarist David Knopfler left after the group's second album, Communiqué (Warner Bros., 1979) while the loss of drummer Pick Withers after Love Over Gold (Warner Bros., 1982)—considered by many (yours truly included) to be the group's first pinnacle—was far more significant, his unmistakable approach being, along with Knopfler's guitar work and Dylan-esquire but nevertheless distinctive vocals, one of the group's biggest treasures.

Brothers in Arms was very much a studio concoction, with Knopfler calling upon a variety of top drawer (and oftentimes jazz-associated) session players including drummers Omar Hakim and soon-to-be band member Terry Williams (who made his one and only group appearance on Dire Straits' first live album, 1984's so-so Alchemy), alongside vibraphonist Mike Mainieri (returning from Love Over Gold), trumpeter Randy Brecker, saxophonist Michael Brecker...even replacing the band's only remaining founding member, bassist John Illsley, on a number of tracks with Tony Levin and Neil Jason. The album also introduce two new members to the group in keyboardists Alan Clark and Guy Fletcher, the latter becoming a near-constant companion on all but one of Knopfler's solo albums and who, in addition to keyboards and background vocals, also engineered the singer/songwriter's records from Kill to Get Crimson (Warner Bros., 2007) forward, and produced/co-produced all of his releases, beginning with Real Live Roadrunning right through to the guitarist's characteristically understated but as-ever excellent Tracker (Warner Bros., 2015).

But if Brothers in Arms' shifting personnel began to suggest that Dire Straits was morphing into a solo career for Knopfler, it became even clearer with On Every Street, where the foursome of Knopfler, Illsley, Clark and Fletcher was augmented with a number of guests including saxophonist/flautist Chris White; soon-to-be country megastar, guitarist/vocalist Vince Gill; and über-drummers Manu Katche (already known for his work with Peter Gabriel) and Toto's Jeff Porcaro, making one of his last studio appearances before his untimely passing in 1992 at the age of 38. But the recruit who made the biggest difference,was pedal steel guitarist Paul Franklin, with whom Knopfler had collaborated on the more overtly countrified group project Notting Hillbillies on Missing...Presumed Having a Good Time (Warner Bros., 1990) and Knopfler's often overlooked gem, Neck and Neck (Columbia, 1990), his duo set with guitar legend Chet Atkins.

But country music had been at least one touchstone of Knopfler and Dire Straits from. It's earliest days, when tracks like "Setting Me Up" would subsequently be covered by expat British country picker Albert Lee on his own leader debut, Hiding (A&M), a year after the song's release on Dire Straits in 1978.

Still, despite the country flavor of Franklin's pedal steel (and acoustic lap steel on the initially roots-driven but ultimately darkly balladic "You and Your Friend"), On Every Street is far from a country record. "When It Comes to You" grooves with a behind-the- beat backbeat and Knopfler's chicken-picking rhythm work overlaid with his honey-toned fills, as he plays the jilted lover who wonders "How come I always get a bad time/ honey when it comes to you." "The Bug" rocks as effortlessly as Brothers in Arms' "Walk of Life," albeit with Franklin giving it a bit more of a country twist as Porcaro's fat snare and equally fat pulse drive Knopfler's reflection on the unpredictability of life:

"Sometimes you're the windshield
Sometimes you're the bug
Sometimes it all comes together baby
Sometimes you're a fool in love
Sometimes you're the Louisville slugger
Sometimes you're the ball
Sometimes it all comes together baby
Sometimes you're going to lose it all."

"Heavy Fuel," with Knopfler's overdriven Les Paul pushing eleven, is the closest thing to Brothers in Arms' "Money for Nothing," but it's a less bombastic outing; another blue collar song that, this time, doesn't opine the success of rock stars but, instead, introduces a confident protagonist who claims:

"I don't care if my liver is hangin' by a thread
Don't care if my doctor says I ought to be dead
When my ugly big car won't climb this hill
I'll write you a suicide note on a hundred dollar bill."

Still, as ever, Knopfler's tongue-in-cheek sense of humor carries the tune:

"My chick loves a man who's strong
The things she'll do to turn me on
I love the babes, don't get me wrong
Hey, that's why i wrote this song."

But even these more straightforward rockers feel less like they've been written with radio and MTV in mind. Instead, if anything, Knopfler returns to the greater poetry of earlier Dire Straits albums, even revisiting the theme of a private investigator first encountered on Love Over Gold's "Private Investigations," but this time less dramatic and more poignant:

"There's gotta be a record of you someplace
You gotta be in somebody's books
The lowdown—a picture of your face
Your injured looks
The sacred and the profane
The pleasure and the pain
Somewhere your fingerprints remain concrete
And it's your face I'm looking for on every street."

But it's the arpeggio-driven theme that acts as a wordless chorus and a lengthy coda that gives the On Every Street's title song its weight, its gravitas; just as the appropriately noir-infused ballad, "Fade to Black" is carried by simple brushwork and a set of changes that suggest Knopfler has more than a passing acquaintance with jazz harmony. Elsewhere, the finger-picked acoustic guitar of "Iron Hand," bolstered by a cushion of atmospheric synths, carries on Knopfler's disposition towards Irish music first demonstrated on the Cal soundtrack. "Ticket to Heaven" is absolutely atypical Dire Straits—a lush, orchestra-driven ballad that, despite its surface beauty, carries a darker message:

"Now there's nothing left for luxuries
Nothing left to pay my heating bill
But the good lord will provide
I know he will
So send what you can
To the man with the diamond ring
They're tuning in across the land
To hear him sing.

I got my ticket to heaven
And everlasting life
Got a ride all the way to paradise."

More obvious is the buoyant, saxophone-driven "My Parties," with its tongue-in- cheek indictment of the superficial:

"Now don't talk to,me about the polar bear
Do t talk to me about the ozone layer
Ain't so much of anything these days, even the air
They're running out of rhinos—what do I care
Let's hear it for the dolphin—let's hear it for the trees
Ain't runnin" out of nothin' in my deep freeze
It's casual entertaining—we aim to please
At my parties."

Although 1991's On Every Street clearly points towards Knopfler's soon-to-burgeon solo career, despite massive changes in participants and songs like "Planet of New Orleans"—where Katché's instantly recognizable, groove-heavy drums and an easy on the ears arrangement that is nevertheless as detailed as anything Knopfler ever wrote for the group—it remains somehow a part of the Dire Straits universe. Even the light country of the album closer, "How Long"—where Knopfler's protagonist ponders when the woman he loves will realize it, only to end with a less optimistic sentiment—remains somehow vintage Straits, as is the opener and curious choice for lead single, "Calling Elvis," its brighter pulse belying a sadder story of loneliness that feels somehow connected to the less studio-experienced but still impressive Dire Straits of 1978.

Still, Dire Straits 1991 was a very different group from the quartet of 1978. When Knopfler hit the road for his final tour with Dire Straits (not unlike Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson, who has more recently dispensed with the group name because, as it turns out—and despite some longstanding members who might argue otherwise—Jethro Tull really is and was Ian Anderson all along...or, at least, could not have existed without him), the group had fleshed out to a nine-piece, with (including Knopfler) two guitarists, two keyboardists, a pedal steel player, a saxophonist/flautist, a bassist, a drummer and a percussionist. A full five of its members were capable of backing up Knopfler's,lead singing, and the tour—not documented in its entirety on On the Night, but a complete show from Basel was recorded and broadcast by Swiss radio—rather than focusing heavily on On Every Street, delivered a representative cross-section of the band's entire career, touching on material from every album including the 1983 EP Twisting by the Pool (Warner Bros.) but excluding, sadly, music from Communiqué—a true gem of a record that was somewhat overlooked due to its superficial similarity the group's debut a year prior.

This edition of On Every Street is a Japanese edition, manufactured using SHM (Super High Material) technology—one that can be played on any CD player but, allowing more precise physical representation of stored bits during pressing and less laser scatter during playback, is supposed to improve sound quality through the production of fewer errors. Whether or not it's a superior format is really up to the ear of the beholder, because there are so many factors in creating good sound that it might represent marginal improvement on a high end system but be less noticeable on less expensive rigs.

Either way, one thing is certain: played through the Tetra 333 "listening instruments" on a BDP-105D Blu Ray player and a Leema Tucana II amplifier, On Every Street may not possess the same detail, separation, warmth and three dimensional soundstage as the SHM-SACD (Super Audio CD, a proprietary format that uses higher resolution Direct Stream Digital technology and will only play on SACD-capable players), but it certainly sounds full-bodied, wth plenty of punch and all kinds of detail not heard on previous versions. Every instrument is crystal clear, and the dynamics haven't been lost through excess compression or "brickwalling," making On Every Street an album well worth Rediscovery; a fine studio swan song for Dire Straits and, for those who were carried away by the mega-selling, hit-laden Brothers in Arms, an album that absolutely deserves another chance nearly a quarter century after its initial release.

So, what are your thoughts? Do you know this record, and if so, how do you feel about it?


[Note: You can read the genesis of this Rediscovery column here.]

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