Catch Bull At Four

Not Rated

Simultaneous with the release of Cat Stevens' new album on A&M, Columbia has released a pleasing first solo effort by Alun Davies, second guitarist on Cat's records from Mona Bone Jakon on.

Catch Bull is impeccably produced. Its musical contents are like those of Teaser and the Firecat — simple, short-phrased melodies and spare and vibrant arrangements. There are, however, notable differences between Catch Bull and its predecessor. The instrumental repertoire has been widened somewhat: three cuts make minimal use of a synthesizer, and on four cuts Cat plays piano. The result is a definite relaxation from the rigorous simplicity of Teaser — a simplicity that, for me, was just one step away from monotony, especially since it underscored the shallowness of Cat's appealing but essentially frivolous, unfocused lyrics. Happily, the greatest difference between Teaser and Catch Bull lies in the lyric themes of the songs. Though some of the lyrics retain Cat's fanciful imagery — word poems so dreamily obscure as to defy interpretation — he shows a new emotional directness, especially on side two, the album's "down" side. This is reflected in Cat's singing, which becomes more assured and more emotive with each album. Alas, what is missing throughout Catch Bull is any single tune with the distinction and sweeping grace of "Morning Has Broken," the most memorable cut on Teaser.

The tone of side one is tentatively happy. It begins with "Sitting," which has Cat on piano and electric mandolin, and Davies on guitar. The song's circular melodic patterns aptly express a resigned but not hopeless personal philosophy: "Just keep on pushing hard, boy, try as you may/You're going to wind up where you started from." "The Boy with the Moon and Star on His Head" is a silly narrative "legend," styled after a typical "olde" English country ballad, about a luminescent illegitimate "love child." "Angelsea," "Silent Sunlight," and "Can't Keep It In" are celebratory meditations, the first two carrying Cat's elusive, sometimes shimmering visual imagery. Sound effects — muted synthesizer on "Angelsea" and penny whistle on "Silent Sunlight" — are used with delicacy and taste. "Can't Keep It In," the most openly joyous cut, fittingly closes the side. The propulsive energy generated by Stevens' and Davies' dual acoustic guitars is considerable, as Cat sings his outbursting message with infectious gusto.

Side two contains the meat of the album. The mood here is of pessimism, terror, apocalyptic foreboding, a region of Cat's personality that we have not been shown so directly before, and his success in revealing it describes a very promising avenue for future artistic exploration. "18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare)," the opener, is the album's most ambitious cut and in every way its best. A vision of insanity and physical and mental deterioration, it accumulates the specific but disjunctive images of a nightmare that makes no literal sense other than forcefully embodying a premonition of metaphysical collapse. The music is also disjunctive, but brilliantly so. In the cut's extended instrumental break, Bel Newman contributes one of his best string arrangements ever, and there is stunning percussion work by Cat and Gerry Conway.

"Freezing Steel," though not as powerful, continues the nightmare theme, again expressing intimations of insanity, this time in a dream of being kidnapped and taken to Venus: "... the pilot turned around/He said we're Venus bound/Oh please take me home/After all I'm only human and the Earth is where I belong." The beautiful "Oh Caritas" (written by Stevens with Jeremy Taylor and Andreus Toumazis) is a passionate Greek prayer for enough longevity to attain spiritual enlightenment, first sung in Latin and then in English translation, with Toumazis on bouzouki and Cat on Spanish guitar and drums. "Sweet Scarlet," which follows, is a glowing, enigmatic song of love lost but self regained: "All those days are frozen now and all those scars are gone/Ah, but the song carries on ... so holy." Cat sings it with only his own piano accompaniment, and it is a knockout — terse, mature, and emotionally convincing.

"Ruins," the finale, is the album's most pessimistic statement, since it is neither nightmare nor romantic recollection, but depressing observation of mankind's ecocidal tendency. A song about returning to one's hometown and finding it disastrously changed, it has one of Cat's most coherent and detailed lyrics — no flights of fancy or oblique metaphors here, only the truth of his own feelings, which he alternately expresses with fierce bitterness and dismal sadness: "I want back, I want back/Back to the time when the earth was green/And there was no high walls and the sea was clean."

All told, I think that Catch Bull At Four is more interesting than Teaser, though tune for tune it is far less memorable. With Mona Bone Jakon and Tea for the Tillerman I was content to bask in gorgeous melody and orchestration. The economy and simplicity of Teaser I admired more than I liked. But what could come next, if Cat continued in this direction? Though Catch Bull doesn't answer this question definitively, I think it represents Cat's challenge to himself to transcend poetic eccentricity and come out front with a clearer, more unified, more emotionally direct expression of what he is about. I hope he continues to wrestle with this challenge, even if its outcome is more truth and less beauty.

If Cat is the crown prince of British folkiedom, Alun Davies ("Daydo" was his childhood nickname) could be the next heir apparent, though I would cast my personal vote for John Martyn or Nick Drake. Davies' musical associations before Cat include roadwork with Jon Mark, Jeremy Taylor, and Spencer Davis, and the formation with Mark of a short-lived band, Sweet Thursday. Daydo was co-produced by Cat and Paul Samwell-Smith (producer of Catch Bull) and has Cat sitting in on piano. Obviously, a lot of brotherly love brought this album into being, for its spirit is remarkably buoyant. Its overall sound is, predictably, somewhat similar to that of Cat's albums, though Davies is no carbon copy of his mentor. Vocally he is less up front; he has a fairly light tenor voice (with a noticeable accent) that is capable of a handsome range of expression.

Of the album's ten cuts, seven are authored or co-authored by Davies. The other three include a very good, high-spirited rendition of Buddy Holly's "I'm Gonna Love You Too"; a lovely banjo-laced interpretation of Cat Stevens' and Kim Fowley's "Portobello Road" (a song from Cat's early days); and, of all things, a rockin' "I'm Late," the White Rabbit's song from Disney's Alice In Wonderland. Davies' own songs have some of the same quality as those on Cat's Teaser — simple, repetitive melodies with basic harmonic modulations — though they are not quite as strong. "Waste of Time," the album's biggest production number, has almost a David Bowie-like theatricality, as Davies proclaims: "Turn on a light, let the light shine in your room/Turn on a light, sort out the light from the gloom." Another musical highlight is the hauntingly resonant ballad "Market Place." Del Newman's arrangements are rich and varied; quiet choral backups appear and disappear; guitar textures are alternately chiming and visceral. It is all veddy veddy British and indicative of the mystic-exotic trend within today's London acoustic scene.

Though this trend exerts a strong influence on Davies' songs, especially the lyrics, he runs afoul of it only once, on the album's longest cut, "Vale of Tears," a ballad that is musically lovely but freighted with the purplest of purple arcana: "Cleopatra and Joan of Arc, Guinevere holding a shell to my ear/Like a trailing root finds rain in the sand I found you/Like hammered bell ringing out in the land would sound you." This kind of mythic romanticism, so profoundly escapist, has been a significant lyric motif for British folkies beginning with Donovan. Its closest American counterpart is the bucolic communal idea expressed by the likes of John Denver. But while the latter myth has at least some vital currency, the insistency with which British folkies (including Cat Stevens, to an extent) look back with longing at Pre-Raphaelite costumed fantasy seems to me extremely self-indulgent and provincial, and ultimately decadent in the most fey and trivial sense.

Lyrically, Davies is most interesting when he writes about people, places, and things. The album's best narrative song, "Abram Brown Continued," is the eulogy-portrait of a robust English type: "Abram's cap falls over his eyes as he scratches his head/Down at the stone where he sharpens his knife/He likes to talk and think of his life/There's things he won't ever tell to his wife/So he tells me instead." The body of the song is prefaced with a short choral round: "Old Abram Brown is dead and gone you won't see him no more/He used to wear a long brown coat that buttoned up before." Equally engaging are "Old Bourbon," a sentimental genre piece about wanting to shelter an emaciated stray dog on a rainy night; and "Poor Street," a succinct sad comment about growing up poor and staying that way. I hope that Davies isn't poor; if he is, he shouldn't stay that way for long.