by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Dire Straits (1978, Warner Bros.)
Dire Straits was never an especially easy band to categorize – they were a pub-rock band, to be sure, and one that owed a great deal to the laid-back grooves of J.J. Cale – but one that was a little less beholden to roots-rock and blues music than your average British bar band (they’re certainly not as rockabilly-oriented as, say, Rockpile) and not immune to the influences of folk, country, and even jazz – so it’s quite fitting that their sound should arrive fully-formed on this, their self-titled debut, helmed by former Spencer Davis Group bassist Muff Winwood. Mark Knopfler’s lyrical voice is already in full flourish here (as is his ever-distinctive style as a lead guitarist), and the poetic “Sultans of Swing” in particular gallops along with such Dylan-like confidence, it’s little wonder that the folk legend himself would be moved to work with Knopfler repeatedly in the coming years (even going so far as to have the Dire Straits frontman produce Infidels). Nothing else here is quite as famous as that single, but it’s all very good – particularly “Down to the Waterline,” “Setting Me Up,” and “Water of Love” – and the album works well enough as a whole that little here feels like blatant filler.
Communique (1979, Warner Bros.)
Occasionally dismissed as the band’s weakest album, Communique (produced by the legendary Jerry Wexler and Muscle Schoals session great Barry Beckett) is actually still reasonably good and is certainly a more vital purchase than On Every Street. But it’s also an easy album to absent-mindedly overlook, if only because it’s the only one of the band’s five albums between 1978 and 1985 that doesn’t deviate in any significant way from the album that precedes it. Essentially, Communique is simply a continuation of Dire Straits but with slightly less memorable songs. (The public apparently thought as much as well, since the disc failed to yield a hit single nearly as sizable as “Sultans of Swing” had been.) But, by-the-numbers though it can seem for much of its running time, it still makes for a perfectly pleasant sophomore outing, and cuts like “Lady Writer,” “Where Do You Think You’re Going?,” “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “Portobello Belle” tend to be quite underrated in the band’s canon.
Making Movies (1980, Warner Bros.)
Brothers in Arms may have been the much bigger commercial success (unlike that album, or the band’s self-titled debut, for that matter, there are no Top 40 hits contained here), but you could actually make a very solid case for the cinematic Making Movies – co-produced with future music mogul Jimmy Iovine and featuring the E Street Band’s Roy Bittan on keyboards – being the best album from start to finish that Dire Straits ever made. The band is in top form creatively here, and only “Les Boys” – which isn’t bad so much as it’s simply out of place, the melody and lyric both distinctively much more akin to the work of Randy Newman than to Dire Straits – prevents the disc –– from reaching perfection. The first half of the album in particular finds Knopfler stepping outside his comfort zone and taking new chances to wondrous results, be it the near-folk of the National-guitar-picked balladry of “Romeo and Juliet,” the dramatic eight-minute epic “Tunnel of Love” (which opens with a quick snippet of a tune from the Rodgers-Hammerstein musical Carousel), and the lightly-disco-tinged roller-derby rock of “Skateaway.” The second-side opener “Expresso Love” is both tighter and more straightforward but rocks with even more muscle and force than anything that preceded it, while “Solid Rock” is arguably the most infectious non-single in the Dire Straits catalog. This disc is definitely not to be missed by classic-rock buffs.
Love Over Gold (1982, Warner Bros.)
It’s a bit of an acquired taste, to be sure, but the band never made a more adventurous disc than this one, nor did they ever show their jazz influences quite as strongly as they do here. (The album’s centerpiece, “Telegraph Road,” in fact, even clocks in at over fourteen minutes!) Unlike Making Movies, which balanced out epics with tighter, radio-ready sides like “Skateaway” or “Expresso Love,” Knopfler doesn’t sound terribly interested here in scoring a hit single (the Farfisa-laden “Industrial Disease” comes closest to sounding like normal radio fodder but is commercially dampened by its unwieldy Dylanesque wordiness), and even the best-known song here, the spine-tingling film-noir balladry of the wholly-spoken “Private Investigations,” gets by on atmospherics alone and offers little in the way of either a groove or a hook. But hooks be damned – the band simply never made a more beautiful album than this one (try not getting chills listening to “Private Investigations” or the vibes-and-nylon-guitar-laden title cut), and though the melodies may not be infectious, the album’s still nonetheless such a pleasant – even sporadically quite relaxing – listen that you may find yourself coming back to this disc simply as a mood piece.
Brothers in Arms (1985, Warner Bros.)
Recorded entirely digitally and often credited as the album most responsible for turning music consumers onto the compact-disc format, it is true that this disc is marvelously engineered and arguably the most sonically appealing of all the band’s records, but the real reason this album went platinum nine times over and has stood the test of time is Knopfler’s strengthened songwriting. Largely abandoning the touches of jazz and prog-rock that graced Love Over Gold, Knopfler reverses course here a bit, hewing a bit closer to the more pop-oriented sounds and tighter songwriting of the debut album but without completely jettisoning the atmospheric touches that made the last album so hypnotic, resulting in a disc that nicely balances the band’s more commercial instincts with its more adventurous side. The album-closing title cut is one of Knopfler’s most moving compositions yet and ends the disc in epic fashion, and “Your Latest Trick” fuses the atmospherics of Love Over Gold to samba rhythms and jazz solos from the Brecker brothers to surprisingly great effect, resulting in a cut that could have nicely fit on adult-contemporary stations alongside cuts like Sade’s “Smooth Operator” if given a chance by U.S. radio outlets. But it’s undeniably the album’s three singles that leave the biggest impression. “So Far Away” is as straightforward a pop single as the band has penned to date, but it’s no less engaging for it. The rockabilly-tinged “Walk of Life” is simply fun, sounding like the perfect hybrid of “Sultans of Swing” and the non-LP side “Twisting by the Pool,” and certainly one of the most lighthearted and playful tunes in the band’s entire catalog. The most iconic in the bunch, of course, is the delicious new-wave blues-rock of “Money for Nothing,” a Number One smash and instant MTV hit penned by Knopfler after overhearing a fellow department-store shopper’s tirade about the music videos airing on the television sets for sale. [Be advised that the album version does contain a heavily epithet-laden second verse that was excised for the song’s single release, but those listeners with an appreciation for Randy Newman’s tongue-in-cheek-style takes on bigotry and prejudice should grasp the joke and take little to no offense.] The original vinyl version of the album is nearly eight minutes shorter than the CD and cassette editions, but it’s arguably a superior listen, as it tightens up the songs considerably (“Why Worry” is even trimmed down by a full three minutes to a much more reasonable five-and-a-half minute running time, while “Money for Nothing” is capped off at just over seven minutes).
On Every Street (1991, Warner Bros.)
Six years after its biggest commercial success, the long-dormant band re-emerges with its sixth and – as it would turn out – final album. Of course, by this time, grunge had already started to explode and the band’s sound was very much passé, but it isn’t so much that the band seems behind the times that hurts the disc so much as that the band just sounds as if it’s having a bit of an identity crisis here, not completely sure of whether to simply update the sound of Brothers in Arms for the ‘90s (as it does to great success on the single “Heavy Fuel”) or to write off its chances of scoring a comeback hit and simply indulge itself in the sort of country that Knopfler and Guy Fletcher had already dabbled with in the Notting Hillbillies during the band’s hiatus (lead-off single “Calling Elvis” was easily the most heavily country-tinged single the band had released to date and certainly not what fans of “Money for Nothing” or “So Far Away” were expecting) or the alt-folk that Knopfler would pursue in greater depths on his later and much less commercial solo discs. (Indeed, Mary Chapin-Carpenter would later go on to record and have a minor country hit with a cover of this disc’s “The Bug.”) You ultimately get the feeling that the album, whether due to label intervention or Knopfler’s own reservations about the project’s sales potential, ended up being released under the Dire Straits name – and songs like “Heavy Fuel” added – only to help sell the record. There are certainly several good songs here scattered amongst the disc – namely, the aforementioned “Heavy Fuel” and “The Bug,” the atmospheric title cut, and “You and Your Friend” – but as a whole, the disc just never really gels, and it seems obvious in retrospect that the band was on its last legs and Knopfler on his way to a full-time solo career.
Money for Nothing is the band’s most famous best-of package and was a staple in CD jukeboxes for years on end, but its 1988 release date means that it both lacks anything from their last album and, like most CDs from that time period, could badly use remastering. [It’s also bizarrely missing “So Far Away,” one of only four Top 40 hits the band ever had; go figure how that one got overlooked.] The 1988 package Sultans of Swing: The Very Best of Dire Straits contains nearly all of the same studio sides (leaving out only “Down to the Waterline”) but also adds “So Far Away,” “Lady Writer,” and three highlights from On Every Street, making it the far superior collection.
Unfortunately, Knopfler and his cohorts in Dire Straits have a tendency to stretch out just a little too much for their own good in a live setting, often extending the songs well beyond their original running times on the studio discs. The results are occasionally quite intriguing, sometimes even quite special, but it can just as often feel much too self-indulgent. Avoid On the Night, which strangely bypasses half the band’s biggest hits (both “So Far Away” and, stranger still, “Sultans of Swing” are missing in action) and opens with a version of “Calling Elvis” that goes on for nearly eleven minutes. Your best bet is 1984’s Alchemy: Dire Straits Live, which arrived too early in the band’s career to include anything from Brothers in Arms but finds the band still sounding hungry and passionate.