Cast your mind back to the eighties and the age of poodle haired AOR (Album Orientated Rock) bands and it’s the likes of Foreigner and Journey who come to mind. Some delving reveals that a bunch of Scots lads, under the name of Strangeways, were serious contenders back then although they just missed out on the big time. They’re still a going concern but the reason for mentioning them is that their guitarist (and sometime lead singer), Ian James Stewart, has released his second solo album, Articana, an album far removed from chest beating arena rock. Heck, even Robert Wyatt appears on it.
Articana is for the most part, a mellow listen, swathes of glistening guitars and fretless bass sweep over the listener although there moments when Stewart’s guitar does growl. At times it’s reminiscent of John Martyn’s later work and the “comeback albums” Peter Green recorded in the 80’s. In addition it’s a protest album of sorts, some of the songs rooted in environmental issues along with an anti war bias. The aforementioned Robert Wyatt appears on the album’s closing song, So Wrong, reciting a list of nation states that have been subject to “our” interventions or dragged into conflict as Stewart’s vocals waft dreamily over an ambient soundscape bemoaning “Government schemes, flying warhead machine, psychopathic greed…” Stewart weaves other dreamlike evocations on the title song and on End Of The World, a song about loss which bobs gently like an abandoned yacht in the midst of a gently rolling phosphorescent sea while Blue Alice is one of those rain splashed neon lit nightime reflections that The Blue Nile do so well. Who Knows Where is more ambitious in its arrangement with a bowed bass adding a fine woody timbre while there’s a slight Celtic lilt to it as the song hits its stride.
There is some slight variety to be heard. The opening March To The Right prowls along with Stewart adding some sinister guitar licks on a song that could have fitted on Robbie Robertson’s first solo album with its voodoo menace. Funny is almost funky with Stewart reciting his acerbic lyrics which cast a baleful eye on injustice harking back to the days of slavery up to the current state of affairs. It’s a portentous song given some heft towards the end as he wrestles up some wailing guitar.
Arcticana is an accomplished album with a broad sweep. The problem is that it probably will appeal mostly to a niche audience. It’s not Americana as such although if you dig Mark Knopfler, Robbie Robertson or The Blue Nile it might well tickle your fancy.
You like shiny and polished? Then have a listen.