As Palpable As Fine Wine

Down in the Cellar (Miramar)
Al Stewart

By David Lilly

Al Stewart is NOT the guy who sang "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" He's been away from making records that you might think that he switched careers after The Year of the Cat or is living elsewhere after becoming lost in Time Passages. The truth is that Stewart, one of the most erudite songwriters on the planet, has toured and made records since the mid 1960's and is alive and very well on Down in the Cellar, his sixteenth record of original songs. He also is, and has been for many years, a connoisseur of wine. And that is the theme of this CD.

We pop the cork and mambo with a mysterious woman ("She says she works in government / Though her job is ill-defined") through "Waiting For Margaux" to begin this finely crafted collection of songs. Stewart's historical references aside, the irresistibly bouncy "Tasting History" evokes memories of Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians' "What I Am." Like "Don't Forget Me" on Stewart's Famous Last Words, the sweet tasting and danceable "Turning it Into Water" is one of the few songs of modern times that wants badly to be stuck inside the heads of radio listeners everywhere, yet it retains the dignity and class of its author.

Bert Jansch's relaxed and acoustic "SOHO" fits very comfortably into this group of Stewart's songs, and is not to be confused with Al's quick-tempo, "rap-before-there-was-rap" 1973 song "Soho (Needless to Say)." "The Night That the Band Got the Wine" and the "Penny Lane"-esque "Millie Brown" induce fingers-napping, head-bobbing, and tell interesting stories of a life-altering experience and an elusive woman. For the dark "Under a Wine-Stained Moon," Stewart combines images of loneliness ("Hear the water lapping / Like a drunk bassoon / Beach umbrellas flapping, somewhere / Under a wine-stained moon") with suspenseful echo and an effectively apprehensive guitar solo.

We get a taste of his fascination with history as "Franklin's Table" chronicles a fantasy evening of wine and conversation with the innovative Benjamin Franklin. "Toutes Le Etoiles" beckons everyone to the dance floor, offers bilingual lyrics and swirling accordion. And that leads to the short and smooth finale, "The Shiraz Shuffle," (Leon Redbone take note) which brings out the Australian in Al and turns your first exposure to this CD into history.

This is not one to remain in your personal CD cellar. Uncork it, let it breathe, and let Down in the Cellar take you into a heady realm of fine music.