Former lead everything of Dire Straits, one of the coolest bands ever, Mark Knopfler is that band's well-known dusky-voiced lead singer, and fleet-fingered Fender Strat playing (no plectrum, a la Jeff Beck) lead guitarist. His voice, and his singularly sinewy, fluid guitar leads, are unmistakeable. (This was not always the case, however, as, in 1978, upon the release of Dire Straits' eponymously titled debut disc, your humble reviewer was the proprietor of a certain popular record store (yep - vinyl LPs, cassettes, and 8-track tapes!), and, upon the radio release of that disc's single, "Sultans of Swing", customers were swarming my store in droves, asking for the new Bob Dylan album!)
Knopfler began his solo work in earnest, while still with the band, doing the soundtrack to the great little movie 'Local Hero', in 1983. He continued making great albums with the rotating personnel of Dire Straits, hitting their zenith with 1985's huge 'Brothers in Arms' (at the time, the first true demo-quality disc in that new format - CD! - being recorded entirely in the digital domain), while also doing other soundtracks solo (Rob Reiner's 'The Princess Bride' and the Hoffman/DeNiro vehicle 'Wag the Dog' being the best-known). In 1996, Knopfler's first proper solo album was released to mixed reviews. 'Golden Heart' is a rather uncomplicated, mid-tempo showcase for his amazingly tasty, textured lead-guitar playing and vocals. This writer thinks it a solid four-star effort, and the simple, classically beautiful love song "Darling Pretty" to be representative of the disc's content. 2000 saw the release of the somewhat average 'Sailing to
' CD, and 2002 the similar 'The Ragpicker's Dream' (being somewhat more Gaelic-hued).
On September 28, 2004, Mark Knopfler released the best album of his solo career. 'Shangri-La' is stuffed to the gills with the most melodic, tasteful, laid-back yet wholly engrossing tunes Knopfler has yet penned for any one disc. In sound and feel, it's perhaps closest to Dire Straits' great 'Love Over Gold'. Opener "5:15 A.M." finds only Knopfler's unmistakeable vocals and the light strumming of what resembles Lou Reed's Fender Strat sound, soon joined by bass and drums in a beautiful mid-tempo walk. Enter Knopfler's own harmonies and that patented Strat lead-guitar sound with its sexy fills and slinky runs, and your smile tells you "yeah, this is it". "Boom, Like That" picks up the pace just a bit, with more emphasis on the beat. In his own inimitable style, Knopfler struts here as well as The Stones, only...well...laid-back.
"Sucker Row"'s lyrics are outstanding, in an album full of outstanding lyrics. And, again, Knopfler's sound - fingers picking that thick Strat setting. In "Back to
", Knopfler references Elvis Presley and
...the guitar playing, both acoustic rhythm and electric lead, are pristine and breath-taking...some of the tastiest the man has ever put to disc. "Our Shangi-la" is a simple, simply beautiful song. "Everybody Pays" opens with a beautiful, Procol Harum (Matthew Fisher)-like Hammond B3 figure that intertwines throughout the song with Knopfler's guitar. "Song for Sonny Liston" is just that...and it's funky and more electric and up-tempo with a simple, but effective, lead/rhythm-guitar figure. "Postcards From Paraguay" injects some latin flavor, an uptempo groover with beautiful self-harmonies. "All That Matters" is a Gaelic-inflected Knopfler signature-original, a simply beautiful acoustic love song with smooth-as-silk lap steel guitar. "Stand Up Guy" is again infected with sublime lyrics, and is one of those slow, acoustic anthems - soft is the new loud, indeed! Knopfler does some sweet chicken-pickin' on the shit-kickin' Lonnie Donegan tribute "Donegan's Gone", and "Don't Crash the Ambulance" closes out the disc with what could be a stolen serenade from a spaghetti western, with great wry, cryptic lyrics.
At 66 minutes, Mark Knopfler has loaded 'Shangri-La" with the best music and lyrics of his solo career, and it's his first disc to stand up solidly to anything Dire Straits did. This music has more hooks than a...(fill in your own pun to this tired joke), and more texture than most artists display in an entire career. As smooth as silk and as slick as whale shit, Knopfler has a bang-on winner here. The lyrics are included, so you won't miss any of the sly, witty, beautiful stories herein. Truly a remarkable feat, to fill an album of this length with this much quality. I love it!
Release Date: September 28, 2004
Tracks: 14 - Time: 66:23
Produced by: Chuck Ainlay & Mark Knopfler
5:15 AM / Boom, Like That / Sucker Row / The Trawlerman's Song / Back to Tupelo / Our Shangri-La / Everybody Pays / Song for Sonny Liston / Whoop De Doo / Postcards From Paraguay / All That Matters / Stand Up Guy / Donegan's Gone / Don't Crash the Ambulance.
Mark Knopfler - Vocals / Guitars
Jim Cox - Organ / Harmonica / Piano / Hammond / Melodica
Chad Cromwell - Drums / Percussion
Guy Fletcher - Organ / Piano / Clavinet / Hammond / Wurlitzer
Paul Franklin - Pedal Steel
Richard Bennett - Guitars
Glenn Worf - Bass / Upright Bass