Where the Action Is
This one from Mike Scott and his current lineup of Waterboys lies somewhere between 2017’s Out of the Blue and earlier Waterboys and Scott solo material. At times, the full band is revved up in rock mode and at others the poet Scott holds court over ethereal backdrops. Where the Action Is was a collaboration between Scott and keyboardist Brother Paul Brown as both shared in production and mixing.
Most of the Waterboys’ styles, culled over four decades, are represented here, post the “Big Music” years. Echoes of albums like 1993’s Dream Harder, 2000’s A Rock in a Weary Land and 2011’s An Appointment with Mr. Yeats are as prominent as those of more recent vintage. Nonetheless, Scott has little left to prove. He’s continues to show why he’s been one of the best songwriters in the past four decades and again, despite what at times feels like a curious mix, he delivers the kind of gems that only he can. Scott has few, if any peers, at delivering half-sung, half-spoken word passages with dramatic flair. His musical mind is essentially boundaryless too – everything from traditional British Isles folk fare to punk, blues, hip-hop, funk, and amped-up rock. It’s all fair game to him. He loves to defy genres and certainly does that here.
For the tour of the 2-CD Out of the Blue, the Waterboys had a nine-piece band including two backup singers, a guitarist and another drummer. Yet, the album itself was as much a one-man multi-instrumentalist Mike Scott playing various instruments and electronics as it was a band effort. The band has essentially paired down to his long-time cohorts – fiddler Steve Wickham, versatile keyboardist Brother Paul Brown and drummer Ralph Salmins along with bassist Aongus Ralston and Jess Kavanagh and Zeenie Summers on background vocals. Those seven are present together on only four tracks, three of which were recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studio, as the configurations change on the others. 2015’s Modern Blues was a complete band effort but, like last time, we only catch a bit of that here. Let’s get into it.
The title track is inspired by the chorus of Robert Parker’s 1960s mod/northern soul classic “Let’s Go Baby.” It’s an update of the Parker classic with lyrics from Scott like – “they say the sweetest victory/is in defeat/and you can fool the whole world/with just one tweet…” The full band is engaged as Brown swirls on the B3, Wickham plays a lead on his fuzzboxed-up fiddle while Jess and Zeenie sing their hearts out. It’s easy to see this one as the opener in their in-demand live shows. ((Oh, and thankfully they will be touring the U.S. in the fall). Straight ahead rock n’ roll follows with a nod to legendary Clash guitarist Mick Jones in “London Mick,” done again in full band mode. A companion piece follows mid-album with full band sans the singers, in “Ladbroke Grove Symphony,” a remembrance of the former Bohemian heart of West London in which Mike Scott invokes his time living and writing among the crumbling, seaside-esque streets of Notting Hill during the 80s. A video for this one just became available this week.
Scott can always be counted on for interesting views on love and offers “Right Side of Heartbreak (Wrong Side Of Love). He recorded it at home with his acoustic guitar and voice into a single microphone at his home in Dublin and sent it to Brother Paul in Nashville, who later provided the soundscape (beats, loops, effects), what’s referred to as “archeology,” and, of course, his signature B3. Ralston and the singers were also added. This approach was followed in other places with Brown and drummer Salmins creating their own soundscapes unbeknownst to the other. A sequential process would have yielded different results. track In any case ,it’s clearly a standout.
.Here’s a lyrical excerpt – “There’s a shadow moving through you/a shadow someone cast/I don’t know what happened to you/in the corners of your past/and just when it seems you’re softening/out comes the grand rebuff/that keeps you on the right side of heartbreak/and the wrong side of love.” Similarly, this kind of approach is found in “And There’s Love” ( a collaboration with English producer Simon dine) and “Take Me There I Will Follow You,” a clear exposition of Scott’s poetic flair – “She lay back in a heap/tried to weep, fall asleep/and in her dreams/moonbeams zipped through/tattered flags/and witches rags of clouds/and killers zigzagged through the slithering crowds. And the national mall…”
We also have the title track, “Out of All This Blue,” from the last album that was never used. Mike revisited it with some changes in style. It’s a song of compassionate reassurance for a friend who’s been to a dark place. Rendered here with the complete band, it’s simply beautiful, another standout.
The centerpiece of the album, one that hearkens back to early Waterboys’ material is the classic example of half sung/half spoken word dramatic Scott for “In My Time on Earth” where he takes a dim view of our current cultural landscape, utilizing all band members for a memorable chorus that says “I will speak the secret” and “I will tell what is true.” We catch a small dose of the rustic Waterboys with Wickham’s fiddle as he and Scott deliver “Then She Made the Lasses O,” based on Robert Burns’ poem “Green Grow the Rashes O.” The disc concludes with the epic “Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” straight spoken word reading of the most beautiful part of the chapter of the same name from Kenneth Grahame’s book The Wind in the Willows. This was done in one instrumental take with Scott at piano, joined by Brown , Ralston, Wickham and Salmons as Scott added the vocal later in Dublin. It’s breathtakingly gorgeous; a complete antithesis to the rocking opener.
While we can’t necessarily assign “brilliant” to all ten tracks, we can clearly do so for half of them, making it well worth many long listens. It’s a testament to Mike Scott and his bandmates that they continue to experiment, and to produce terrific music four decades on. This U.S. tour cannot come soon enough.
- Jim Hynes