More Flowering than Towering
First the good news. Rob Dickinson has finally caught some much-deserved good fortune. With his band Catherine Wheel, Dickinson spent the 1990s being tossed around by record labels and eking out an existence as one of those “criminally underrated” bands, which they were. When Dickinson’s debut solo album, Fresh Wine for the Horses finally appeared in the fall of 2005, it was just in time for then-label Sanctuary’s dissolution. Plus, it was saddled with one of the worst album titles and cover photos of all time. In the storm of uncertainly that is today’s music business, few artists are getting first chances, much less second ones. But that’s exactly what’s happened to Dickinson.
Among the relative few to hear Fresh Wine for the Horses the first time round were guitarist Marty Willson-Piper of Australian mainstays the Church, who contributed to the album and invited Dickinson to open on a North American tour in 2006; and legendary record producer Bob Ezrin, who brought Dickinson’s album to the attention of the head of Universal Music Canada just as Sanctuary was folding. Now, Fresh Wine for the Horses, and in many ways Dickinson’s career, is getting a fresh lease on life. After being picked up by Universal Music’s Fontana Distribution arm, the album has been remastered, re-edited, and reissued with one brand new track and a second “bonus” disc of stripped-down, re-recorded Catherine Wheel material; sadly, however, the cover photo has survived. The overhaul has done only favors to both the original Fresh Wine for the Horses material and Dickinson/Catherine Wheel fans. Everybody wins.
But here’s the not-great, though definitely not bad, news. Fresh Wine for the Horses remains a solid but uniformly unspectacular record, one of those unfortunate cases where an emotionally-rejuvenated artist results in borderline-treacly art. It gets by on Dickinson’s optimism and a handful of good songs, with an added boost from the comeback story. Still, all this makes it an album you want to love but sometimes struggle just to like.
If the widescreen, wide-eyed alt-rock psychedelia of Catherine Wheel’s 1997 magnum opus Adam & Eve was Dickinson’s answer to Dark Side of the Moon, Fresh Wine for the Horses finds him squarely in Division Bell territory. The spacious, expansive sound is there, but instead of sounding unhinged, it comes across as mild-mannered and downright friendly. Soaring anthems like “My Name is Love” and “Oceans” would sound great on Adult Album Alternative radio, which is doubtless where Universal is hoping they’ll land. Where once Dickinson fed off “anxiety to use”, now he’s telling a youngster, on the admittedly heartfelt “Intelligent People”, that “You’ve just gotta smile / And hang out with intelligent people”. If it were that simple, Rob, John Lennon would still be alive today. But that’s the general drift of Dickinson’s near-New Age philosophy, expressed in the majority of these songs. Love = good, hate = bad. Still, these midtempo anthems are vastly preferable to Coldplay or whatever else is clogging the airwaves these days.
Fresh Wine for the Horses does have something to offer to those in search of the menace and edge of vintage Catherine Wheel, in the form of two outtakes from that band’s 2000 swansong, Wishville. “The Storm” grinds along before exploding into a thrilling nosedive of a chorus, while the gently swinging rhythm and grandiose tension of “Towering & Flowering” are even better. “My mood has an altitude”, Dickinson sings on the latter, and he’s right. Thanks in large part to Brian Futter’s creaky, Neil Young-on-acid guitar, these songs rise above the relatively dense atmosphere that drags down parts of the album. Only “Handsome” manages the stop-start, soft-loud intensity of the Catherine Wheel castoffs, a sign that, while Dickinson was brave to bypass much of the heavy, cerebral sound that made his former band’s name, his decision isn’t without a downside.
Like Adam Franklin, the singer/guitarist for another group of British 1990s shoulda-beens, Swervedriver, Dickinson has performed most of his solo shows in singer-songwriter, just-a-guy-and-his-guitar fashion. While this makes for an intimate live experience, the singer/songwriter mode doesn’t transfer so readily to the studio. Ponderous tracks like “Bad Beauty” and “The Night” simply meander and disappear, showcasing Dickinson’s rich, expressive, velvety croon but nonetheless coming across like lesser versions of Catherine Wheel classics like “Future Boy”. New sequencing does allow Fresh Wine for the Horses to close on a relative high, however, with the beautiful and memorable “Don’t Change” and a cover of Warren Zevon’s “Mutineer”, featuring surprising multitracked harmonies that fade away too soon.
As for the one brand new song on this reissue, “The End of the World” falls far short of taking the album to a new level. Could any song with such a banal title be up to such a task? It is, though, a welcome addition, managing a satisfactorily Floyd-like sprawl and grandeur. For Catherine Wheel fans, a much harder bait to resist will be the “bonus” disc, titled Nude after the gorgeously mournful Catherine Wheel track. Though based mostly on acoustic guitar, the versions of this, “Black Metallic”, “Crank”, and other evergreens are not totally unplugged, with e-bow’d electric guitar, gently pulsing bass, and other touches making seemingly random appearances. Nothing spoils the Catherine Wheel legacy, but only “I Want to Touch You”, given a new arrangement, sheds any new light on the material. Hopefully, it’ll encourage newcomers to dig into the band’s back catalog.
And that’s the ultimate rub with this reissue of Fresh Wine for the Horses. It’s certainly deserving of its second chance. But even more deserving are Catherine Wheel’s five studio albums, some lying out of print. A comprehensive re-issue series, complete with b-sides, outtakes, and live tracks, would be the perfect lead-in to a full Catherine Wheel restart. That would be the perfect happy ending to Fresh Wine for the Horses’ improbable story.
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