Like the Artful Dodger of Dickens' "Oliver Twist," Dire Straits stealthily emerged last year from the dull back-ground of urban London, hawking a unique and fircely personal brand of music which flew in the face of the punk faddism dominating the English music scene.
In doing so, this quartet of heretofore unknnown middle-class pub rockers has managed to carve out a gennre all its own, while at the same time acknowledging debts to such artists as J.J. Cale, the Ventures, the Shadows and, most notably Bob Dylan.
On "Dire Straits," the band's initial effort, it was the Dylan influence that was most evident. In keeping with Dylan's curious musical esthetic, the sound took on a lean, understated quality punctuated by the master's distinctive phrasing and fleshed out with his cinematic attention to detail.
On the strength of "Sultans of Swing," the album's char-riding ballad, Dire Straits toured the United States, playing to SRO houses and finishing up at the prestigious Roxy in Los Angeles, where the crowd included such luminaries as Jerry Brown, Rod Stewart, Neil Young and, appropriately enough, Bob Dylan.
With "Communique" [Warner Bros. Hs 3330], the lyrical emphasis has shifted from an almost Dickensian fascination with the minutiae of urban England to a mythical absorption in what frontman and composer Mark Knopfler calls "American imagery."
Both Knopfler's 1976 American vacation and the U.S. tour to support the first album supplied the raw material for the switch, which is reflected in the pseudo-medley that begins with "Once Upon a Time in the West." While the guitar lends a haunting, lonesome air to the songs, Knopfler murmurs and growls about the solitary romance and hard-bitten realism which comprise his vision of the Old West:
Sitting on a fence, that's a dangerous course.
You can catch a bullet from a peace-keeping force . . .
Even a hero gets a bullet in the chest
Once upon a time in the West.
As the album progresses, one suspects that the band identifies its plucky maverich status with that of the iconoclastic cowboy, as "News" demonstrates:
Sticks to his guns Takes the road as it comes Says it's a shame It may be a game But I won't play to lose.
All the while, the laid-back repetition of the music becomes more and more hypnotic, as each track blends into the next, offering few high points or breaks. With the accompaniment all set, the Dylanesque elements are allowed to stand out.
In "Where Do You Think You're Going," the chorus ["If you ain't with me girl/You're gonna be without me"] becomes a slothlike evocation of "Lonesome When You Go." "Lady Writer" is a character sketch in the "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" vein, albeit with an impressively subtle embroidery of guitars and a reflectvie attention to detail.
"Single-Handed Sailor," probably the album's best cut, fuses a bright, funky guitar with verse-like sea imagery, to create a stark, personal vignette.
However, because Knopfler depends on the lyrics to more or less "sing" themselves, his delivery remains relatively flat and unemotional; more so, even, than that of Dylan himself.
Happily for Knopfler and Dire Straits, their shameless similarities with Dylan have not gone unappreciated. Knopfler and drummer Pick withers have been signed by Dylan to perform on his forthcoming album, with "Communique" producers "jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett at the controls. In addition, Knopfler has recently completed some sessions with Walter Becker and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan.
As for "Communique," it entered the Billboard album chart at No. 53, which means it could either ride the coattails of the first album, up the chart to the top 10, or wither relatively unnoticed on the vine. In the Warner Brothers promotion magazine, Waxpaper, Knopfler professes unconcern with the fate of the band's latest effort. "I could give two bleeding hoots if this album stiffs," he said. "I honestly couldn't give a monkey's a --."
Knopfler's attitude is indicative of the band's artistic approach, as well is an approach which gave them the courage to defy the conventional musical wisdom and come up with a genre of their own.That could turn out to be the most artful dodge of all.