Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Potted Fish

To put the review (which I will write in the next day or two) of Fish's new album in context, I thought I'd give you (the loyal readership of this blog) a potted history of his solo career so far...

In 1988 Fish parted company with the rest of the band Marillion and embarked on a solo career which has had its fair share of highlights, low points and occasional U-turns.

Despite the fact that I acknowledge the variable quality of some of his solo recordings, I still consider Fish to be one of my favourite artists - certainly my favourite 'solo' artist. I have seen him live in concert many times (10, I think) and he has never been less than great. On occasions (most notably Tarlair 1993, Haddington 1999 and Glasgow 2005) he has been outstanding.

But, of course, a great performer and showman doesn't necessarily make a great songwriter. During his time in Marillion it was clear that the others did the music and Fish provided the lyrics. This remains apparent throughout his solo career as the quality of the music is directly related to the co-writers of each of them. The lyrics are always interesting and generally good, but the actual tunes vary considerably, depending on the songwriters.

For his first solo album, Vigil in a wilderness of mirrors (1990), Fish struck solid gold - the songwriting partnership with keyboard player Mickey Simmonds produced an entire album of great quality 'neo-prog' and melodic rock. And it was head and shoulders above the first couple of Marillion's post-Fish albums, which must have boosted Fish's ego no end. All nine tracks on this album are great and it remains one of Fish's finest recordings to date. If you're a newcomer to the world of Fish, this is the place to start.

The next album, Internal Exile (1991), was also mostly co-written with Mickey Simmonds and is also great throughout, although perhaps not as perfect as the first album. It is here that the two sides of Fish's character and music are most apparent - great, hard rocking, angry songs like Credo and Tongues sit beside gentler, mushier ballads like Favourite Stranger and Dear Friend. This pattern has been maintained ever since. Mickey Simmonds left the band after this album.

Fish's third solo album, Songs from the mirror (1993), marks the start of his 'wilderness years' - an album of cover versions, well performed but not greatly inspiring. An album of cover versions always sounds warning bells for me - it often indicates the musical equivalent of writers block, that the artist had simply failed to write any decent songs, yet was contractually obliged to release an album. Unfortunately this hypothesis was kind of confirmed when the next album came along...

Then came Suits (1994). Undeniably the low point of Fish's career, this is an album of songs mostly co-written with members of his backing band who were great musicians, but not great songwriters. There are still gems in there but, in my opinion, songs such as Emperor's Song, Somebody Special and Fortunes of War are much better in some of the live recordings since then than on the original CD. Oddly enough, the best song (IMO) on Suits, Out of my life, wasn't on the original CD release, it was a single b-side which only made it onto the CD for the remaster a few years later. No dummy is quite simply the worst song Fish has recorded. This is the first CD in Fish's career which I always skip certain tracks on. While I like about half of the songs on the album I don't think I've actually listened to No Dummy or Pipeline so far this century.

Following this, Fish remained in the wilderness for a few more years, doing an acoustic tour and releasing two compilation CDs of original and re-recorded versions of his singles and other selected songs; Yin and Yang (1995). The re-recorded version of Somebody Special from 1995 is better than the original from the previous year.

And just when I thought it might all be over for Fish, he made a staggering comeback. Despite the really quite bad cover art, Sunsets on Empire (1997) was a masterpiece. Mostly co-written with Steve Wilson (from the band Porcupine Tree), this album takes the angry rock songs and makes them angrier and rockier and takes the gentle, mellow songs and makes them gentler. It works. More than half of the album (mostly the rock songs) is fantastic and the rest (the mush) is merely quite good. In the middle of all this is the truly outstanding song Jungle ride, co-written by long-time guitarist Robin Boult. Sadly he left the band after this album, just after figuring out how to write great songs. Shame. I still do regularly skip a few of the tracks though, generally Worm in the bottle, Tara and Say it with flowers.

Raingods with Zippos (1999) is also a 'hit and miss' album. The second half of the album is a fantastic, epic, six-part masterpiece called Plague of Ghosts - a collaboration with Tony Turrell and Mark Daghorn, collectively known as The Positive Light who had remixed Marillions's 1997 album This Strange Engine and briefly made Marillion cool on the dancefloor! The rest of the album is less focused and contains a thoroughly mixed bag of songs. Sadly, the two new collaborations with Mickey Simmonds were nothing like as good as the stuff they co-wrote for the first two albums; Tumbledown is OK, but nothing special, while Rites of passage is more like something Celine Dion should be singing. Urgh. Sandwiched between these are an uninspiring bop-along song, Mission Statement, an interesting duet ballad with Elizabeth Antwi, Incomplete, a strangley out of place folk-esque song, Tilted Cross, and a hard rocking cover of SAHB's Faith Healer, which is great but adds nothing new to the song. On the whole the first half of the album is fairly directionless. This is not a coherent whole - this is even clear when you look at the sleve notes, there are different musicians on each of the songs. Once again, I selectively skip certain tracks when listening. This album features the first appearance of Steve Vantsis on Bass... he'll be important when we get to the new album.

Fellini days (2001) is the first Fish album since Internal Exile which I regularly listen to in its entirety (i.e. without skipping tracks). Here the songs range from good through to excellent. The opening and closing tracks on the album are longer than they have any right to be, but aside from that the album is great, with the run of four songs from track 2 to 5 being some of the best songs Fish has ever recorded. So Fellini and Long Cold Day are two of his finest outright rock songs, Our smile is the best ballad he'd recorded for a long time and Tiki 4 is a unique, hard to classify song which is pure Fish. Fantastic. The entire album was co-written with two Johns, guitarist John Wesley (no, not the famous Methodist) and keyboard player John Young.

And then came Field of Crows (2003*), mostly co-written with Bruce Watson (of Big Country fame) who had worked with Fish in the past. Like Fellini days, this is a consistently good album, with no need to skip any tracks when listening. Indeed, I'd probably say it ranks alongside Vigil as one of the best two Fish albums. Much like Fellini days (and unlike Vigil!) this album starts with one of its weakest tracks, The Field being, once again, a much longer song than it has any right to be. But after that the brilliant songs come thick and fast. Track 2, Moving Targets, is probably the finest song on here, great music, poignant lyrics and full of emotion - this is Fish at his best.

2005 saw the release of a two disc solo career 'retrospective' called Bouillabaisse, featuring most of the best songs and one 'new' track, a cover of Frankie Miller's Caledonia which had been recorded for a Frankie Miller tribute album in 2003. It also marked the 20th anniversary of the release of Marillion's classic Misplaced Childhood album, so much of the year was given over to the 'Return to Childhood' tour, during which he played the entire album of Misplaced Childhood as part of the set. Fantastic!
And now we have the release of the 13th Star - Fish's 13th studio album (including the 4 with Marillion). Given the quality of the last two studio albums, it has a lot ot measure up to. But is it any good? I'll tell you later.

[*] Released December 2003 via his website. Didn't hit the shops until Spring 2004.

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At 10:20 pm, Blogger Tim H said...

13th Star is a strong candidate for album of the year. Intense, emotionally charged stuff

Not terribly easy listening if you're on first name terms with his ex, though :(


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