Dire Straits (Warner Bros. ’78, ‘01) Rating: A-
Dire Straits’ debut album is one of their best. It features all of the band’s trademarks, including Knopfler’s clean, melodic guitar fingerpicking, his conversational vocals and literate story-based lyrics, and their chugging rhythm section (John Illsley, bass; Pick Withers, drums). Dire Straits is more minimalist and less slick than later offerings and is all the better for it, and there’s more than a hint of the blues in both Knopfler’s guitar playing and in his often-cynical yet poetic lyrics. “Down To The Waterline” starts things off on a rocking high; I love it when the guitar kicks in after the mellow, mysterious intro, and the band's lockstepped grooves and Knopfler's dazzling solos makes the song a real standout. Also outstanding, if less obviously so, are “Water Of Love,” a relaxed and lonely slide-led blues with wonderful tom tom drum patterns from Pick, and “Wild West End,” an evocative ballad with an easily singable chorus. These melodic songs are mature and confident, never mind that some of the punk snobs who so hated this band back in 1978 would also call them “boring,” a charge that holds up for parts of some of this album’s other songs. Of course, those punks also secretly wished that they could play guitar half as well as Knopfler, and his impressive guitar licks ultimately lift each of these songs. Plus, when the band hits their groove-based stride on louder, more up-tempo tunes like “Setting Me Up,” “Southbound Again,” and especially the classic “Sultans of Swing,” the results are hard to argue against. And unlike most albums recorded in 1978, Dire Straits hasn’t aged a single day in the intervening years.
Communique (Warner Bros. ’79, ‘01) Rating: B Less than a year later came Communique, which lacked the freshness of the debut but which still contained some good songs. In particular, the unstoppable groove of “Lady Writer” became a familiar radio track that’s highlighted by Knopfler’s guitar virtuosity (the short but sweet closing solo is simply incredible) and some surprisingly singable harmonies, a facet of the band that’s reprised on the relaxed blues of “Once Upon A Time In The West,” a lengthy, evocative album opener, and “Angel Of Mercy,” a countrified winner with a poppy chorus. The pretty ballad “Portobello Belle” is enhanced by piano, and “Where Do You Think You’re Going?” really picks up toward the end, topped off of course by Knopler's guitar solo; both songs bring Bob Dylan to mind, while the laid back shuffle groove of “Single-Handed Sailor” was likely influenced by J.J. Cale, though again the stellar guitar solo that closes the song out is pure Mark Knopfler. Indeed, for all their easy to spot influences, Dire Straits still have their own easily identifiable sound, even if that sound is only really effective in the service of well-written, memorable songs. There are less of those this time out, and the band's sound is a bit too loose and laid back for its own good, making Communique a mellower, less satisfying sequel to a stellar debut. Certainly aside from "Lady Writer" it lacks the obvious standouts of that album, though Communique is still a solid effort when judged solely on its own merits. Note: Rhythm guitarist David Knopfler (Mark’s younger brother) left the band after this album, leaving Dire Straits as a trio, albeit briefly.
Making Movies (Warner Bros. ’80, ‘01) Rating: A Containing a nice blend of intense rockers and beautifully relaxed melodies, this “really cohesive album sounds like one song,” according to producer Jimmy Iovine. Of course, the samey-sounding nature of these songs can also be seen as a negative, and some people will always see Dire Straits as a blander derivation of the likes of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, and Lou Reed. But my guess is that few people will find legitimate fault with Mark Knopfler’s consistently stellar songwriting here, and the terrific keyboard playing of E. Street Band member Roy Bittan gives this album a moody, cinematic quality that's reminiscent of early Springsteen. Of course, the band’s greatest attributes remain Knopfler’s great guitar playing and the undeniable grooves laid down by drummer Pick Withers and bassist John Illsley, who continue to form a first-rate rhythm section. As for the songs themselves, several of these are among the bands very best, starting with “Tunnel Of Love,” a graceful, groove-driven 8-minute epic that's catchy, rocking, and soulful all at once. Perhaps it's a tad overlong, a minor complaint that could be leveled at several of these songs (the album contains only seven songs), but it certainly earns its longevity, with some lyrical soloing from Knopfler being especially enticing. “Romeo and Juliet” is next and is a memorable urban romance that sees Knopflier in prime storyteller mode, and though perhaps the melody is a bit boring it's still an extremely effective and affecting song on the whole (I like the Indigo Girls' cover version a lot as well). “Skateaway” is a laid-back, lightly funky highlight that's quite rhythmic (it’s also the song from which this album gets its title), while “Expresso Love” boasts great riffs and a convincingly rocking overall groove that's hard to stand still to. "Solid Rock" is a bit too similar to "Expresso Love" but is faster-paced and more concise; it's also very impressive despite its derivative nature, and “Hand In Hand” is another relaxed effort that I’ve grown to appreciate. Unfortunately, the cabaret of “Les Boys” anti-climatically closes the album with an underwhelming (and many would argue, homophobic) throwaway, but that’s the only major bum note on Making Movies, which I consider to be the band’s most consistent and flat-out best studio album.
Love Over Gold (Warner Bros. ’82, ‘01) Rating: B+
After Making Movies, Mark Knopfler added rhythm guitarist Hal Lindes and keyboardist Alan Clark for Love Over Gold, another ambitious album but a hit-or-miss affair. Of course, the 14-minute "Telegraph Road" must dominate any discussion about this album, as it's undeniably one of Dire Straits' best songs. Lyrically, the history-themed song contains tough times and everyday struggles, ultimately ending on a romantic note ("but believe in me baby and I'll take you away, from out of this darkness and into the day"). Musically, this superior if slowly evolving song features soulful, relaxed grooves and ultimately climaxes with a great extended guitar-based jam ending. "Industrial Disease," with its bright new wave keyboards (a precursor to "Walk Of Life"), cool riffs (a precursor to "Money For Nothing" - in fact, much of this transitional album hints towards the more atmospheric direction of that album), fast-paced toe tapping rhythms, and Knopfler's funny, rapped vocals, provides the album’s second most memorable melody, but the other three long album tracks (yes, Love Over Gold has only five songs) are a bit on the boring side (correction: I’ve since warmed up to one of them, but read on…). "Private Investigations" (on which Knopfler intimately whispers rather than sings and which at least has an occasional jolt of energy) and "Love Over Gold" have some prettily plucked guitars and are appropriately "atmospheric" (the latter song has some pretty piano as well), but neither warrants its 6+ minute running time, despite some quote worthy lyrics like "and what have you got at the end of the day, what have you got to take away?, a bottle of whiskey and a new set of lies, blinds on the windows and a pain behind the eyes." Again, though it took several listens for me to warm up to it, and despite arguably also being over-long at 8-minutes, "It Never Rains" is much better because it has a nice little melody, is livelier, and most of all it has another superb guitar-led (naturally) jam ending, which elevates it above the two prior “easy listening” entries. Ultimately, Love Over Gold is an at times outstanding album that’s also too padded out and too often lacking in excitement.
Alchemy (Warner Bros. ’84, Mercury ‘96) Rating: A-
This is one hell of a live album. On the down side, with only one song apiece from each of their first two albums, the song selection here is questionable, as I would've preferred a more career encompassing set list. Also, "Love Over Gold" is still boring even in a live setting, keyboardist player Alan Clark is too prominent, and only a few of these songs significantly improve upon the original studio versions. On the plus side, the ones that do are incredible: "Once Upon A Time In The West" maintains a great laid-back mood (with some vintage guitar noodling from Knopfler) for almost 13 minutes, "Sultans Of Swing" smokes for almost 11 minutes, and "Tunnel Of Love" astounds for almost 14 minutes (including a mellow 4-minute "carousel waltz" intro that's less impressive). These songs show off Mark Knopfler the guitar hero to excellent effect; damn this guy can play, and the rhythm section (with Terry Williams impressively replacing Pick Withers on drums) propulsively holds their own throughout. "Romeo And Juliet," "Private Investigations" (which is better here than I remember the studio version being), and "Telegraph Road" are also enjoyable, and though the expanded "Romeo And Juliet" drags a bit, "Telegraph Road" is actually shorter than the studio version at a "mere" 13 minutes. It's still terrific, even if it doesn't really add much to the already excellent original, and the same can be said about "Expresso Love," which is a bit more intense and rocking than on Making Movies. Saxophonist Mel Collins shines on the generic but fun boogie rock of "Two Young Lovers" (the studio version of which was previously available on the Twisting By The Pool EP), "Solid Rock," and "Going Home (Theme From 'Local Hero')", a Knopfler solo song that ends the album with a moody, laid back vibe that provides a perfect lead in to their atmospheric next album, Brothers In Arms. Long story short: though imperfect, Alchemy shows that Dire Straits were once a really good band who actually rocked. At their best, these longer, more loosely constructed songs have a zip and an energy that can only come from live performances, as mid-'80s Dire Straits could clearly put on quite a show.
Brothers In Arms (Warner Bros. ’85, ‘01) Rating: B+
An enormous commercial success, this album firmly established the band as worldwide superstars, primarily due to the three smash singles that begin the album. The relaxed, catchy, and melodic “So Far Away” is a thoroughly pleasant if thoroughly unexciting pop song. Much better is the huge hit “Money For Nothing,” which is built around thick Billy Gibbons-based riffs and cynical lyrics about MTV; the song was also boosted by a creative animated video and some backup support from Sting. Next up is the catchy new wave ditty “Walk Of Life,” which has bright and catchy keyboards and a soaring, girl group inspired chorus going for it. Though those singles are the songs that most people remember this album for, the rest of Brothers In Arms is quite unexpectedly different, delivering mostly soft songs that are heavy on atmosphere but light on what could legitimately be called rock 'n’ roll. Oh, Knopfler adds some good bluesy guitar licks to “One World,” and his soulful guitar connects with a quiet, deeply emotional intensity on the mournful title track, the best song here along with “Money For Nothing” and one of their best songs ever. However, “Your Latest Trick,” a pretty, melodic, supremely mellow supper club song that’s highlighted by its lonely late night saxophone, veers dangerously close to Kenny G. territory (though of course it’s much better than that), and the lullaby-like “Why Worry” delivers more easy listening, easily likeable, but also boring "mood music." Though notable for its delicate guitar work, prominent ear pleasing keyboards, and lightly catchy harmonies, this eight and a half minute song significantly overstays its welcome, as does the atmospheric, world music influenced “Ride Across The River," though this one is only seven minutes long, with more tasteful guitar and sultry sax. "The Man’s Too Strong” is of a more manageable length and is one of the album's better songs, with a folksy overall vibe that's undercut by dramatic orchestral explosions from time to time (memories of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”). On the whole, this album works best as background music, and I can see how the band's slyly seductive, synth-heavy direction here might've disconcerted earlier fans. Personally I think that the album could use a jolt of energy here and there, but though I regret the decreased role of rock 'n’ roll (and of Knopfler’s guitar playing), the band sure sounds good throughout. One of the first full digital recordings, the production on Brothers In Arms is flat-out fantastic, and the album played a major role in ushering in the cd age, which perhaps helps explain some of its enduring popularity.
On Every Street (Warner Bros. ’91, ‘01) Rating: B
Released six long years after Brothers In Arms, On Every Street was a commercial disappointment by comparison, which wasn’t all that surprising considering that the massive success of Brothers In Arms was something of a fluke in the first place. On Every Street was a little like Brothers In Arms in that it was another low-key effort that too often delivers mere background music, but this album has more variety. For example, “When It Comes To You” delivers simple, laid back blues pop, “Fade To Black” is a slow, atmospheric blues, “The Bug” is an amusing rockabilly number, “Heavy Fuel” is a straightforward, ZZ Top-ish riff rocker, “Ticket To Heaven” is a gentle, lushly orchestrated country-tinged ballad, “My Parties” is a melodic sax and horn-led story song, and “How Long” is a lightly singable pop number with some prominent pedal steel guitar. Of course, the album also lacks the killer hit singles that so defined Brothers In Arms; “Calling Elvis,” a tongue in cheek tribute to The King that pokes fun at all of the “Elvis is alive!” fanatics, was one of the band’s more nondescript singles. Fortunately, Knopfler remains a crafty songwriter and producer, making latter day Dire Straits an impressively professional if decidedly unexciting proposition. It doesn't help that several of these slowly unfolding songs take too long to unfold, such as “On Every Street,” “You and Your Friend,” and “Planet of New Orleans.” After all, there’s understated and then there’s boring, but fortunately Dire Straits remain on the right side of that divide more often than not (those are still good songs). Unfortunately, with Illsley being the only remaining original band member left, Dire Straits at this point sound more like Mark Knopfler plus a bunch of guys, in contrast to their earlier albums when they were very much a groove-based actual band with impeccable chemistry. Given that, it’s not surprising that this turned out to be the last Dire Straits album, or that On Every Street is probably the least essential of the band’s six studio albums, though it’s still a pleasantly enjoyable effort for the most part.