period piece

Life Between the Wars (Mesa/ Bluemoon)
Al Stewart

By Allen Howie

English pop troubadour Al Stewart, whose hits include "Year of the Cat" and "Time Passages," has released what may be the most adventurous and appealing of his fifteen albums.

Life Between the Wars began as a series of informal sessions with former Wings guitarist Laurence Juber, during which the pair explored their mutual admiration for the classic guitar stylings of Django Reinhardt. Their focus quickly narrowed to the musical idioms in vogue between the two World Wars. Form followed function, and the lyrics echoed the melodic ideas to evoke that bygone era.

The result is a collection that manages to sound both fresh and timeless, a bouquet of Tin Pan Alley tunefulness and intelligent whimsy. Largely acoustic, the album is built around Stewart and Juber's guitars, plus Juber on dobro, banjo, mandolin, and six-string bass. Along the way, the stray violin, cello, piano or washboard might turn up, but the songs and sound rest upon the two nimble guitarists and Stewart's luminous, lightly accented vocals.

Nine of the eleven numbers here (there are two instrumentals) also bask in Stewart's keen wit and poetic style of writing, both of which are perfectly suited to the era he's chosen to illuminate. Whether weaving historical allegories between that period and our own ("Three Mules," "A League of Notions," "Laughing into 1939") or conjuring up compelling cultural icons ("Night Train to Munich," "Lindy Comes to Town," "The Age of Rhythm"), Stewart gathers words and music into the kind of epic tapestry for which he's known. In so doing, he bathes those decades in a golden glow—one which occasionally illuminates the gloomy corners we might prefer to leave dark. Which leads you to think that things haven't changed so much in fifty years.