Teaser and the Firecat Deluxe Edition
4.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
This isn't a tease, cats, but it's an album with plenty of fire. Cat Stevens' fifth and best album, "Teaser and the Firecat" is now twice as pleasurable. A & M records has remastered the album and added a second disc containing live performances and demos, plus a twenty-plus page booklet with liner notes from Stevens (aka "Yusef Islam"), producer Paul Samwell-Smith, and Cat's long-time guitarist Alun Davies.
"Teaser" combines up-tempo reggae-based folk rockers ("Bitterblue," "Changes IV," "Tuesday's Dead") with earnest ballads ("If I Laugh," "How Can I Tell You," "The Wind") and hopeful hippie hymns ("Peacetrain," "Morning Has Broken"). In successfully blending together these three musical elements, Stevens' often autobiographical material brings to mind the cerebral musings of the tragic British balladeer Nick Drake. Stevens called "Teaser" and his previous album, "Tea for the Tillerman" (which contained his signature tune, "Wild World") yin and yang efforts. "Tea" was designated "the day"; "Tillerman" "the night." If that's the case, I say, "Bring on the night."
"If I Laugh" is, for me, Stevens' best track, an ode to a love that could have been if he'd generated enough nerve to make the first move. (Yes, even the normally unflappable MJ has suffered the consequences of being the man who has hesitated and lost.) Stevens' aching whisper of a voice relates the moment you saw the person you love walking along with someone else: "If I laugh, just a little bit, maybe I can forget the chance that I didn't have, to know you and live in peace, in peace."
Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman finally gets his due in the credits for his piano work on "Morning Has Broken." Wakeman was reportedly quite upset that his name was left off the original pressing of the album, not to mention the one-time session man pittance he received while Cat reaped the royalties as the song reached #6 on the charts. But Wakeman can't kick too much, his piano intro smacks so much of Bach he's fortunate he didn't have to wear a powdered wig to avoid a plagiarism lawsuit.
The reggae party beats of "Changes IV," "Tuesday's Dead" and "Bitterblue" balance out Cat's shattered love sonnets. Drummer Gerry Conway powers "Changes IV" as Cat's crew raids the percussion box, playing everything from wood blocks to bones as they create the tunes rump-shaking beat. Cat mans the marimba for "Tuesday's Dead," another Conway-driven island-inspired romp. The frenetic "Bitterblue" features sleigh bells, vibraphone, organ, more Conway-crashing and overdubbed string-snapping acoustic guitars that burn as hot as a blue flame.
Two tunes defy classification. The brief opening track, "The Wind," is the most Drake-like. It's stripped down, with Stevens playing in tandem with acoustic partner Alun Davies, and is capped by Stevens' whispery, sedate vocal. It's 1:42 of acoustic magic. Play "The Wind" alongside Drake's 2:00 "Pink Moon" (remember it as the Volkswagen song?) and you'll get twice as much joy from these pair of gems than any of Bruce Springsteen's six minute constipated howlers. The follow up, "Rubylove," wouldn't be out of place on the soundtrack for "My Greek Wedding" (providing there is one). Stevens was part Greek (his real name was Steven Demetre Georgiou), and the backing pays tribute to his heritage, employing the dancing gypsy bouzouki playing of Andreas Toumazis and Angelos Hatzipalvi, two musicians who played at the Stevens' family-owned restaurant. Cat gives the song further authenticity by singing a verse in Greek, and Linda Lewis spices up the recipe by humming along in the background. It may be music to smash plates by, but it'll bring out your inner Zorba.
The radio friendly "Moonshadow" reads like an anatomy lesson, but it's also a charming nursery rhyme with adult undertones: "If I ever lose my hands, lose my plow, lose my lands, I won't have to work no more... "If I ever lose my mouth, all my teeth, north and south, I won't have to talk no more." The love will conquer all philosophy of "Peace Train" that follows creaks along a little more slowly and archaically these days. It was catchy then, but is merely cute now, an anthem to the unfulfilled promise of world peace.
Disc Two will tantalize your ears with live and demo versions of songs from the album. "Rubylove," "If I Laugh," "Changes IV," "How Can I Tell You" and "Morning Has Broken" were demoed in London with just Stevens on acoustic guitar. Without the bouzoukis, "Rubylove" loses its Greek restaurant flair, but remains jubilant. Stevens drags his vocal for "If I Laugh," which lessens its impact, but his playing is as crisp as it is in the final version. Stevens' enthusiasm and percussive acoustic scraping guarantee that the kitchen sink percussion in the final "Changes IV" aren't missed that much. "How Can I Tell You" has a quickened pace that sucks the sentiment from it; somebody wisely advised Cat that the song wouldn't work at a pace that even Seabiscuit on crack couldn't follow. As you might imagine, since the album version is keyed off of Wakeman's piano, the demo for "Morning Has Broken" is the least recognizable.
Recorded at The Troubadour in L.A. in 1971, Moonshadow" illustrates the dynamic between Stevens and long-time accompanist Alun Davies - they certainly play as one! Stevens introduces a brisk "Bitterblue" as a "country and western" song. It's interesting to note how much freedom he gains on stage with a full band. "Bitterblue" and "Tuesday's Dead" retain their rhythmic power as hand-clapping crowd pleasers. His 2003 World Music reinvention of "Peace Train" would fit in with Peter Gabriel's best percussive experiments. Never liked the original much, but the new version's horse-whip percussion, army of back up singers chanting in various languages and Stevens' newfound devotion to the lyrics prop up the song's dated sentiment and turn it into the inspiring anthem it was meant to be.
Have Some Tea Too...
Steven's previous album, the star-making "Tea for the Tillerman" (3 ½ out of 5 stars) is also available in a deluxe package. It was originally an 11 song confessional proclaiming Stevens' spiritual awakening while dissecting his relationship with American actress Patti D'Arbanville ("New York Undercover"). "Tillerman's" songs are a bit more vague and densely constructed, but this is still a strong batch of Tea. The adult nursery rhyme "Into White" is such a solid tune that Carly Simon chose it as the lead track and title for her 2007 album. When you chose a Cat Stevens song over you ex-husband's, and your ex-hubby happens to be James Taylor - you know its subtle masterpiece. Other Stevens' standards include the D'Arbanville inspired "Hard Headed Woman," (later done to spiteful perfection by Mike Harrison) and Stevens' groundbreaking "Wild World," in which Cat sideswipes Patti, wishing her well one moment and hell the next: "Hope you have a lot of nice things to wear, then a lot of things turn bad out there."
"Sad Lisa" and "Wild World" get two additional readings: a demo and a live version recorded at Yusef's Café. This is pretty significant in that I've reviewed a number of deluxe editions in the past that revised the same tracks two or three times - a practice that left me trying to see if I could break a CD with my bare hands (I can. Take that Dwight Yoakam.) For a change, all three incarnations, the final version, demo, and live recording, are worth listening to. There's also a demo of "Miles to Nowhere" in its embryonic stage. The rest of the CD highlights a pre-blind devotion to Allah Cat in concert singing songs from the album at The Troubadour, in Japan, at the BBC, and as part of his "Majikat Earth Tour" in 1976.
Stevens struggled with pangs of guilt regarding his spirituality throughout his career. "Teaser and the Firecat" reached #2 on the U.S. album charts, and along "Tea for the Tillerman" (#8) went triple platinum. Although Cat's next album, "Catch Bull At Four" hit #1, his songs were getting more curious and indecipherable. Aside from the choppy "Can't Keep It In," and the synthesized "Angelsea," Cat's sixth album was a lot of bull. 1973's "Foreigner" contained the withering "The Hurt," but was marred by the eighteen minute overindulgence of "Foreigner Suite." "Buddha and the Chocolate Box" continued Stevens' run of top ten albums, but the next platter, the ill-advised concept album "Numbers" which told the tale of the fictional planet of Polygor, rightfully peaked at an unlucky #13. Stevens rebounded with "Izitso," which contained his last great song, "Life." A near drowning incident in 1976 nearly cost Stevens his life - he promised God as he was swallowing salt water that if he saved him he'd work on his behalf. A wave came along that pushed him to shore, miraculously sparing him. Cat converted to Islam a year later. Stevens continued to perform, but fell "Back to Earth" with an uninspired album of the same name in 1978. Creatively spent but independently wealthy, Stevens retired from music.
After a 28 year hiatus (during which he became a whipping boy for all things related to terrorism), Stevens returned in 2006 as Yusuf Islam with the album "Another Cup." Despite the religious overtones, the romantic "Heaven/Where True Love Goes" and pastoral "Green Fields, Golden Sands" showed that Yusuf hadn't lost his ear for melody.
The deluxe edition of "Teaser and the Firecat" proves what we've known all along: Cat Stevens does indeed have nine lives.