Music Reviews: Dire Straits’ Studio Albums, Plus Uncle Walt’s Band & Harry Dean Stanton

By , Contributor
You’ll find essential tracks on each of the six albums in Dire Straits’ recently issued clamshell-boxed set, The Studio Albums 1978-1991, which includes the British rock group’s eponymous 1978 debut plus Communique (1979), Making Movies (1980), Love Over Gold (1982), Brothers in Arms (1985), and On Every Street (1991). The CDs are packaged in mini replicas of their original vinyl sleeves and come with posters that offer photos, art, and lyrics.

Mark Knopfler—the only founding member who stayed with the group all the way to the end—occupies center stage throughout. He plays lead guitar, delivers the lead vocals, and wrote all but one of the songs himself. (The exception is “Money for Nothing,” the group’s only chart-topping U.S. single, where he shares composing credit with Sting, who famously opens the number by singing, “I want my MTV.”) That’s not to say that these sound like Knopfler solo records or that his musicianship is their only attraction; the band was a bit of a revolving door, but the folks who went through it fit well with one another and knew how to deliver the goods.

The group took off with a bang with their bestselling first album, which includes the fresh-sounding “Sultans of Swing,” a top-five hit, as well as “Down to the Waterline,” which leaves little doubt that Knopfler is a guitarist of major proportions. Much of the rest of the record isn’t quite as impressive, but the band is just getting started here. 

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Communique has the expansive “Once Upon a Time in the West,” and Making Movies is loaded with sprawling albeit tightly constructed vehicles for Knopfler’s guitar pyrotechnics, including the gorgeous “Tunnel of Love” and “Romeo and Juliet.” The instrumental fireworks continue on Love Over Gold, which is most notable for “Private Investigations” and the 14-minute “Telegraph Road.”

The double-Grammy-winning Brothers in Arms, with its well-hooked, radio-friendly songs, sounds like a bid for greater commercial success, and it’s a bid that undoubtedly succeeded beyond the band’s wildest dreams. On the strength of singles like “Money for Nothing” and the bouncy “Walk of Life,” it sold a zillion copies, going platinum nine times over in the U.S., topping charts in America and many other countries, and ranking for a while as the bestselling album in U.K. history. The record is expertly performed and appealing but to these ears, is not Dire Straits’ best or most characteristic work.

On Every Street, which showed up three years later, was also a bestseller, though not on a par with its predecessor. However, it includes more than enough powerful moments—such as the majestic guitar work on “You and Your Friend”—to make you sorry that the group broke up after its release.

Having all of these albums in one place is nice, though it would have been even nicer if the compilers had included some bonuses, starting with the singles, EP tracks, and Knopfler solo material that flesh out 1991’s Sultans of Swing: The Very Best of Dire Straits. But it’s hard to grumble, given this box’s low price of admission (about $30, or five bucks per disc). Moreover, the set gives you virtually everything you really need from this band with just one important exception: Alchemy, the group’s stupendous 1984 live album.

Also Noteworthy

 

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Uncle Walt’s Band, Recorded Live at Waterloo Ice House. This excellent 1982 concert recording is the latest in a series of expanded album reissues from Uncle Walt’s Band, an acoustic trio that attracted a solid fan base in Austin, Texas, in the late 70s and early 80s. 

The set—which features seven remastered songs from the original release as well as 14 previously unissued tracks—leaves no question that (to quote from the title of one of their other albums) “they sure enough could sing.” They could write, too, as demonstrated by the preponderance of fine original material here. Plus, while they were rooted in folk, they were impressively eclectic: you can hear jazz and country influences in this concert, and the set also embraces a bluesy cover of “Since I Fell for You,” the 1963 pop hit by Lenny Welch.

 

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Harry Dean Stanton with the Cheap Dates, October 1993. Harry Dean Stanton, who died in 2017 at age 91, was primarily an actor—and a busy one, with roles in dozens of television shows and more than 100 films, including The Godfather Part IIParis, Texas, and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. But he also found time to make music, mostly in partnership with Jamie James of the Kingbees, who produced this collection of nine previously unreleased covers, four from the studio and five from a gig at the Troubadour in L.A. The material is first-rate, and Stanton’s band includes talented players, such as Slim Jim Phantom (Stray Cats), Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan), and Tony Sales (Iggy Pop, David Bowie). 

As for the performances, the three opening tracks—studio covers of Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land,” and William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water”—are just OK. But Ry Cooder’s great “Across the Borderline” shows off Stanton’s vocal potential, and the live set is consistently impressive. It includes raucous versions of rockabilly singer Warren Smith’s “Miss Froggie,” Berry’s “Never Can Tell,” and Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City,” plus beautiful readings of Phil Spector and Jerry Leiber’s classic “Spanish Harlem” and “Cancion Mixteca,” a Mexican song that shows up on the Paris, Texas soundtrack. Those last two numbers in particular suggest that if he’d focused more on music, Stanton might have gone as far in that field as he did in acting.


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Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com), a longtime magazine editor, has written about music, politics, and popular culture for more than 75 periodicals. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches…

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