The Waterboys


The Waterboys

The Waterboys - The Waterboys ©1983 Chrysalis
1. December
2. A Girl Called Johnny
3. The Three Day Man
4. Gala (unedited)
5. Where Are You Now When I Needed You?
6. I Will Not Follow
7. It Should Have Been You
8. The Girl In The Swing
9. Savage Earth Heart
10. Something Fantastic (bonus)
11. Ready For The Monkeyhouse (bonus)
12. Another Kind Of Circus (bonus)
13. A Boy In Black Leather (bonus)
14. December (original 8-track Mix) (bonus)
15. Jack Of Diamonds (bonus)

The Waterboys’ eponymous debut album stands as more of a collection of demos and unfinished ideas than the progressive "big music" Mike Scott was known to pen on the albums to follow. Recorded in many sessions from 1981 to 1983, The Waterboys, largely a mixture of Springsteen/U2-inspired arena rock and the organic approach of Astral Weeks-era Van Morrison, is perhaps a bit too ambitious for what Mike Scott was able to accomplish in that period of time. His vocals are often wildly off-pitch, and many of the songs, such as the potentially rousing opener "December" and the unedited rendition of "Gala", simply drag on for far too long. Still, "A Girl Called Johnny" is a catchy number that does not overstay its welcome. His guitar playing was, even by the standards of post punk in 1983, quite ugly, and the production is quite awkward, utilizing a surfeit of cheap-sounding drum loops and lo-fi, almost unmixed layering techniques. While his vision of "Big Music", as he put it (that is to say an ever-changing cast of musicians creating whatever kind of music Mike Scott’s inspiration leads to), was not quite in full-force, and in many cases sounding downright amateurish, the Waterboys’ debut still stands as an interesting starting point for a band that would become excellent in a very short amount of time.

An interesting note: 2002 saw the re-releasing of all of the Waterboys’ pre-Dream Harder recordings, and included on them is a veritable heap of bonus and unreleased songs. They serve as a more than a great introduction to the Waterboys/Mike Scott curious. This particular re-release features the aforementioned unedited "Gala" and the previously un-included "Where Are you Now When I Needed You?" restored to their originally intended places, not to mention six other bonus, demo, and alternate recordings.

Review by Alec A. Head

Review date: 08/2006

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A Pagan Place

The Waterboys - A Pagan Place ©1984 Chrysalis
1. A Church Not Made With Hands
2. All The Things She Gave Me (unedited)
3. The Thrill Is Gone (unedited)
4. Rags
5. Some Of My Best Friends Are Trains
6. Somebody Might Wave Back
7. The Big Music
8. Red Army Blues
9. A Pagan Place

A Pagan Place was a significant step up from the self-titled debut of the Waterboys for many reasons, namely the recruitment of a full line-up to help flesh out the ambitious idea of "The Big Music" that had been swimming around in Mike Scott’s head for so long. Not only that, Scott’s understanding of production had improved greatly, as the sound is more in keeping with the organic, layered, ever-growing approach that would be further characterized on subsequent albums. Surprisingly, the album is comprised of two sessions and a number of the songs are left over from the first album; a strange thing considering the overall unevenness of that album, as A Pagan Place is much more consistent overall.

Scott’s role as songwriter/principle performer of the Waterboys (which included vocal duties, all guitars, keyboards, and bass) was bolstered considerably by drummer Kevin Wilkinson, brass player Roddy Lorimer, sax/kitchen sink player Anthony Thistlewaite, violinist Tim Planthorn, and soon-to-be-World Party frontman Karl Wallinger on piano and many other instruments. The resulting sound was a lot fuller, bigger and warmer than on the decidedly under-developed debut. The album contains a handful of some of Mike Scott’s greatest songs, namely the epic, Morricone-ish ballad "Red Army Blues", standard post-punk anthems like "Rags", uplifting opener "Church Not Made With Hands" and the beautifully fitting title track which sums up the Waterboys ethos to a T. Still, the album is a few points shy of being perfect by virtue of the odd inclusion of a previously unreleased track in the rather lyrically stupid "Some of My Best Friends Are Trains" and still-erratic vocals from Mike Scott (although he had improved greatly since the debut).

The 2002 reissue of this album contains some bonus tracks and two of the original songs in their complete, unedited form, not to mention informative liner notes from Scott himself. Once again, I recommend anyone looking to get into the Waterboys’ music to track down these reissues as they provide a wealth of great rock music. An interesting note: bonus track "The Madness is Here Again" and the originally included "Somebody Might Wave Back" would both be fleshed out into the raucous "Be My Enemy" on The Waterboys’ masterpiece, This is the Sea.

Review by Alec A. Head

Review date: 08/2006

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This Is The Sea

The Waterboys - This Is The Sea ©1985 Chrysalis
CD one:
1. Don’t Bang The Drum
2. The Whole Of The Moon
3. Spirit
4. The Pan Within
5. Medicine Bow
6. Old England
7. Be My Enemy
8. Trumpets
9. This Is The Sea
CD two:
10. Beverly Penn
11. Sleek White Schooner
12. Medicine Bow (full Length)
13. Medicine Jack
14. High Far Soon
15. Even The Trees Are Dancing
16. Towers Open Fire
17. This Is The Sea (live)
18. Then You Hold Me
19. Spirit (full Length)
20. Miracle
21. I Am Not Here
22. Sweet Thing
23. The Waves

This is the Sea signaled many things for the Waterboys. For starters, it was the end of the era of "Big Music" that Mike Scott had striven so hard to create on previous albums before taking a creative detour and exploring other avenues of sound with The Waterboys. Secondly, it brought fiddler Steve Wickham into the fold, who would be absolutely essential to the Waterboys’ sound on later albums. Thirdly, it is the second and last Waterboys album to feature Karl Wallinger, who would depart in somewhat acrimonious fashion to form World Party. Lastly, it is arguably one of the finest albums of the 1980s and the pinnacle of Mike Scott’s achievements as a singer and songwriter.

Chosen from "a bedrock of 35-40 songs" that came out of the result of a year’s worth of songwriting, This is the Sea is the first album the Waterboys would release that contained a continuously flowing atmosphere sustained for forty-two minutes of music. It is that very sense of journey and an almost palpable joy for life that gives the album its power and grace. Mike Scott finally became comfortable behind the microphone, developing a distinctive and emotive delivery in the process. The production took on a robust wall-of-sound quality, and every song is so chock-full of nice, Steve Reich-ian subtleties that repeated listens are an absolute must.

After a Morricone-inspired flourish of trumpet, twelve-string acoustic guitar, and piano, "Don’t Bang the Drum" explodes out of the speakers with a driving rhythm. Scott is able to successfully keep the song going for almost a full seven minutes. "The Whole of the Moon", perhaps the song for which The Waterboys are most known, is one of the more uplifting songs I can think of. "Be My Enemy" is an intense, raucous blues/rock number that reminds me of Motorhead (a stretch, I know). "Medicine Bow" has an absolutely soaring chorus, and the closing title track is perhaps one of the most life-affirming contemporary songs I have ever heard. The song is nothing more than Scott singing over two chords strummed in 6/8 time signature with subtle string, horn, and synth arrangements carefully layered on top of it. It slowly ebbs, flows, and rages into an emotional climax. In fact, through every track, Mike Scott exhibits an ability to attain and, more importantly, sustain an atmosphere without more than three or four chord changes. For the sake of The Waterboys’ music, less really is more.

According to the eruditely written and informative liner notes Mike Scott has provided us for the re-release of this album, This is the Sea took on a life of its own and every song sounds as if it was meant to be there. Mike Scott is firm believer in the elemental power of music and its ability to evoke a sense of journey and place, and this idea is no better exemplified than on this album. Essential.

An Interesting Note: due to "special" quality of this album to both Scott himself and his fans, the 2004 Chrysalis reissue does not include unedited renditions of songs and continuity-disrupting bonus tracks tacked onto the end of album, but a full extra disc of bonus, demo, unedited, and live material. Many of songs, such as "Beverly Penn" and Sleek White Schooner", are fully realized and would not be entirely out of place on another full length. Definitely buy this edition.

Review by Alec A. Head

Review date: 09/2006

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Fisherman's Blues

The Waterboys - Fisherman's Blues ©1988 Chrysalis
1. Fisherman’s Blues
2. We Will Not Be Lovers
3. Strange Boat
4. World Party
5. Sweet Thing
6. Jimmy Hickey’s Waltz
7. And A Bang On The Ear
8. Has Anybody Here Seen Hank?
9. When Will We Be Married
10. When Ye Go Away
11. Dunford’s Fancy
12. The Stolen Child
13. This Land Is Your Land

Rather than replicate the success of the monumental third album, Mike Scott and the ‘boys (sans Karl Wallinger) decided to do a complete 180 and focus on that Van Morrison-inspired neo-traditionalist Irish folk music thing that had been bubbling underneath the surface for so long, and in so doing created a fantastic follow-up to This is the Sea. Fisherman’s Blues would prove to be their most successful album, spawning a hit single in the title track and garnering the band something a little bit more than a "cult following".

The production is far removed from the densely layered approach of its predecessors. Rather, in keeping with the newfound traveling troubadour image Scott had drummed up for his band, the songs sound as if they were recorded live with minimal overdubs. However, like "the Big Music" of previous albums, the music sounds alive and organic. This is "big music" of an altogether different variety. Fiddler Steve Wickham is all over the place on this album, peppering the songs with a lovely sense of refinement. Scott’s vocals were more dynamic than ever before (he doesn’t stick to just one volume level this time around). Not surprisingly, Fisherman’s Blues contains a Van Morrison cover; "Sweet Thing" takes a song that was previously only four and a half minutes long and stretches it to twice its length, leaving much breathing room for Steve Wickham to work his magic and throwing in a Beatles reference for good measure. Interestingly, "Strange Boat" sounds as if it was recorded in another session and is sort of out place. "World Party" is probably the closest the album comes to The Waterboys’ previous sound. "We Will Not Be Lovers" is another epic jammy number. One would think that I would be tired of the title track, which still gets radioplay on both sides of the Atlantic and has seemingly appeared on the soundtrack of every lighthearted UK film of the 90s. Strangely, I still find it moving and uplifting.

For a band to follow up an absolutely wonderful album with an equally rewarding one is quite a thing, and while Mike Scott’s approach can seem a tad heavy-handed at times (see closer "Stolen Child"), it was always a unique one. It may not be as jarringly awesome as This is the Sea, but the overall celebratory and warm nature of the album make it one of three essential albums in the Waterboys canon.

Review by Alec A. Head

Review date: 10/2006

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Room To Roam

The Waterboys - Room To Roam ©1990 Chrysalis
1. In Search Of A Rose
2. Song From The End Of The World
3. A Man Is In Love
4. Kaliope House
5. Bigger Picture
6. Natural Bridge Blues
7. Something That Is Gone
8. The Star And The Sea
9. A Life Of Sundays
10. Islandman
11. The Raggle Taggle Gypsy
12. How Long Will I Love You?
13. Upon The Wind And Waves
14. Spring Comes To Spiddal
15. The Trip To Broadford
16. Further Up, Further In
17. Room To Roam

...And thus begins Mike Scott's descent into mediocrity.

Room to Roam, The Waterboys' follow-up to the fantastic Fisherman's Blues and damn-near-transcendental This is the Sea, is a further elaboration on the more traditional Irish folk elements of its predecessor. As a standard Irish folk album, it works quite well. However, as a Waterboys album, it lacks the power and punch of what makes their music so unique. The whole thing is so damned confectionary and sugar-coated that the listener might need insulin shots by the time it reaches its conclusion. Granted, "Something That Is Gone" is a wonderful heartfelt pop ballad with excellent contributions from Anthony Thistlewaite and Steve Wickham, and the album's lengthy centerpiece, "A Star and the Sea", ranks among Scott's best, even if both are a bit overproduced and commercial sounding. It's just that everything else is so forced-happy that it lacks the sense of joy that previous Waterboys albums exhibited. If this were released as anything but a Waterboys album, it would probably be considered a decent entry into contemporary Irish folk music, but as it stands, it marks the beginning of the fall of Mike Scott and the Waterboys.

Review by Alec A. Head

Review date: 10/2006

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Dream Harder

The Waterboys - Dream Harder ©1993 Geffen
1. The New Life
2. Glastonbury Song
3. Preparing To Fly
4. The Return Of Pan
5. Corn Circles
6. Suffer
7. Winter Winter
8. Love And Death
9. Spiritual City
10. Wonders Of Lewis
11. The Return Of Jimi Hendrix
12. Good News

By the time 1993 rolled around, Mike Scott found himself without a backing band. Recorded with session musicians, Dream Harder marks a turn to more commercialized and overtly slick brand of rock. Without real bandmates to keep his ambitions in check, it represents the most pretentious and overblown aspects of Mike Scott's persona. One will be surprised by the first few minutes of "New Life", where a warm distorted guitar tone and tasteful lead guitar lines accent a solid rock rhythm. This all comes crashing down the second Mike Scott opens his mouth with what is perhaps the most unenthusiastic performance he will ever be associated with. "Glastonbury Song" sees Mike Scott doing a dead-on impression of Bryan Ferry; it's a shame the song itself adheres to he same pseudo-new-age-spiritual preening that pervades the rest of the album. There’s a lame reggae/dub song in the form of "Suffer". "The Return of Pan" is the "sequel", of sorts, to "The Pan Within", and veers dangerously close to a Spinal Tap level of self-parody. Funnily enough, one of the album's saving graces is on its worst track (not to mention the worst song Mike Scott has ever written): "Spiritual City" features the incomparable Billy Connolly in an all-too-short muse about life and death. "Winter Winter" is a gorgeously minimal acoustic song. It's a shame that it is only thirty seconds long. "Love and Death" sounds conspicuously like Phil Collins-era Genesis circa We Can't Dance. I won't even begin to talk about "The Return of Jimi Hendrix". The title speaks for itself.

In the midst of the general malaise with which the album was received, Mike Scott saw fit to officially disband the Waterboys, which is probably the best move he could have made following an album as unfortunate sounding as this.

Review by Alec A. Head

Review date: 10/2006

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A Rock In The Weary Land

The Waterboys - A Rock In The Weary Land ©2000 BMG International
1. Let It Happen
2. My Love Is My Rock In The Weary Land
3. It’s All Gone
4. Is She Conscious?
5. We Are Jonah
6. Malediction
7. Dumbing Down The World
8. His Word Is Not His Bond
9. Night Falls On London
10. The Charlatan’s Lament
11. The Wind In The Wires
12. Crown

I am not sure whether it was the depressing state of the world, the suicide of longtime drummer Kevin Wilkinson, a long period of overall disillusionment, a lengthy stay at the spiritual commune of Findhorn in Scotland, or a combination thereof, but Mike Scott saw fit to resurrect the Waterboys moniker in 2001 and release what is easily his greatest accomplishment since This is the Sea.

One listen to A Rock In The Weary Land will lead the listener to believe that this is an altogether different band than before. The Irish folk influences of the post-Sea-era are entirely eschewed in favor of gritty and surreal atmospherics. The first thing that one will realize is how damned dark it is. The whole album, even on its catchier sing-along moments ("My Love is My Rock in the Weary Land", "We Are Jonah"), seems to be covered in a blackening urban haze. Many of the songs evoke the spirit of John Lennon, but the modernity, darkness, and vastness of the album’s tone bring Bends-era Radiohead to mind, not to mention the far-reaching atmosphere of This is the Sea. A quick glance at the liner notes will reveal not only the return of Anthony Thistlewaite on one track, but the addition of session synthesizer and effects by none other than frequent-Coil collaborator Thighpaulsandra.

Opener "Let it Happen" spins a dark tale of one man’s travel through a suffocating urban landscape. The anthemic "My Life is my Rock in the Weary Land" has what at first seems to be an uplifting and joyous chorus sung by Mike Scott and a gospel choir, but later turns out to be ironically downtrodden. "It’s All Gone" is a sad song with a two-line lyrical motif centered around two chords played on an acoustic guitar surrounded by swirling tape-delay vocal effects. The utterly awesome "Crown" is absolutely huge in its scope and features one of the final recorded contributions of drummer Kevin Wilkinson. "Dumbing Down the World" is not without a bit of sardonic humor in spite of its hellish atmosphere.

Throughout everything, the surreal and swirling nature of the recording does not seem to be too far-removed from "The Big Music" of yesteryear, and its continuous atmosphere is indeed more in keeping with his earlier recordings, but whereas This is the Sea was meant to be joyous and life-affirming, A Rock in the Weary Land strikes me as a more personal, intimate, and honest reflection of a songwriter in need of a catharsis. Methinks he achieved this goal with this excellent contribution to the Waterboys canon.

Review by Alec A. Head

Review date: 10/2006

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Universal Hall

The Waterboys - Universal Hall ©2003 Puck Recordings
1. This Light Is For The World
2. The Christ In You
3. Silent Fellowship
4. Every Breath Is Yours
5. Peace Of Iona
6. Ain’t No Words For The Things I’m Feeling
7. Seek The Light
8. I’ve Lived Here Before
9. Always Dancing, Never Getting Tired
10. The Dance At The Crossroads
11. E.B.O.L.
12. Universal Hall

There are very few musicians out there whose careers have taken on as wildly divergent of a path as that of Mike Scott. The man has dabbled in post-punk, arena rock, neo-traditionalist Irish folk, pseudo-spiritual early 90s cock rock, a surreal folk/rock mix, and now, after over two decades, he releases another diverse mixture of folk music, rock, and even electronic music, but with a renewed sense of joy and vigor.

In a way, Universal Hall harkens back to his mediocre Room to Roam days, but at the same time, its simple song structures and tasteful lyrical motifs bring to mind a genuinely spiritual atmosphere, not entirely unlike Nick Cave’s last four releases. This is not surprising, as the album was recorded at and as a tribute to Findhorn, a spiritual commune in Scotland where Mike Scott has frequently made himself a guest. Thankfully, the spiritual overtones do not come off as heavy-handed or overt, but genuinely honest and reflective. The album also sees fiddler Steve Wickham return to the fold, and his presence on the album is a welcome one indeed.

If there is any song that would have benefited more on the cutting room floor than in the context of the album, it is the electronically-treated "Seek the Light". In the face of an album that consists entirely of simplistic folk/rock numbers, it stands in stark contrast to the rest of the album and disrupts the flow immensely. Luckily, the rest of the album, while not up to the level of This is the Sea or A Rock in the Weary Land, is still a moving and fun experience. The AOR-tinged "Silent Fellowship" is surprisingly touching in this regard, as it could have easily found a home on an AM radio station. It is supplemented by one of Scott’s most convincing vocal performances to date and pulls on the heartstrings convincingly.

Despite its one shortcoming, Universal Hall is another solid and welcome addition to the Waterboys canon.

Review by Alec A. Head

Review date: 11/2006

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