Over the years, rock 'n' roll has accumulated its own strata of myths, with all the advantages and disadvantages of such a body of common understanding. Its artifacts range from famous performers and familiar songs to specific stylistic devices and instrumental licks, and almost every fan knows the appropriate response. As a result, something as familiar as the staccato guitar figure Chuck Berry used to introduce "Roll Over Beethoven" can no longer be played without establishing expectations in the listening audience.
All of which makes it difficult for a performer eager to celebrate the rich resonance of rock 'n' roll to avoid falling into cliche's. How much can be said, after all, with a vocabulary of mannerisms? Fortunately, there are those who can evoke the music's great moments and singular energy on their own terms, and among them are Nils Lofgren and Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler.
Lofgren's romance with rock 'n' roll has been a long-term affair, with its recorded history stretching back 15 years to when the Silver Spring guitarist turned up on Neil Young's "After the Goldrush." As much as his songs showed passion for the music, though, an awful lot of them were too self-conscious in their tribute to carry any real weight.
Happily, Lofgren seems to have finally found his true voice, for "Flip" (Columbia BFC 39982), his latest album, manages to capture all the energy and glory of the music he loves without seeming bound by his borrowing. The songs here are strong and sure, powerfully affecting but stand entirely on their own.
Ironically, this album comes at a time when Lofgren might seem most tempted to lean on the strength of another. Having recently replaced Miami Steve van Zandt in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, Lofgren would not have been blamed had he appropriated some of Springsteen's mannerisms into his own work. Instead, the most he has taken from his boss is the tendency to reinforce a song through understatement; the arrangements here are lean and well focused, handily making the most of each melody's pop appeal.
Lofgren hasn't abandoned his fascination with familiar rock devices, but he has learned to direct our attention away from the licks and toward their effect. Consider "From the Heart," a jaunty love song that skips along over a perky back-beat groove. By alternating between the loosely flowing verse patterns and a stiffer, horn-driven chorus, Lofgren keeps the song moving at a comfortable pop pace throughout.
Listen closely, though, and it turns out that "From the Heart" has been carefully modeled on the Stax soul sound, from the punchy organ part (here played on synthesizer) to the way the drums shift from back-beat on the verse to on-the-beat behind the horns. The result is much the same, but because Lofgren doesn't make a big deal about it, the song isn't automatically dismissed as just another soul tribute.
There's an awful lot of that running through the album, from the Motown-styled drum break slipped into the end of "Flip Ya Flip" to the Allmanesque slide guitar in "New Holes in Old Shoes," but it's hard to hear them without really making an effort. Instead, what the listener notices most is the melodies, from the wistfully optimistic "Flip Ya Flip" to the anthemic "Secrets in the Streets." And, by making the leap from imitator to originator, Lofgren truly becomes part of the tradition he celebrates.
Mark Knopfler isn't so lucky. True, he doesn't have any problem with avoiding obvious echoes, no doubt because of the degree to which his songs are colored by his utterly idiosyncratic guitar style. But an equal amount of Knopfler's detachment comes from a conscious distancing on his part; there is an awful lot about the rock tradition for which he has neither use nor patience.
No wonder, then, that many of the best songs on "Brothers in Arms" (Warner Brothers 25264-1), the album which will be bringing Dire Straits to the Merriweather Post Pavilion on Aug. 8, are its bitterest. It isn't that Knopfler, the band's leader and principal voice, is particularly mean-spirited; it's just that he is most effective when he can really put his teeth into a topic.
Certainly that's the case with "Money for Nothing," a brutally funny statement on the consequences of music video. Opening with a vocal cameo by Sting, whose sweetly sung "I Want My MTV" is at once tribute and attack, the music quickly gets down to business with a burlesque of boogie guitar, as Knopfler assumes the perspective of a working stiff sneering at the glamor of televised rock stars. "That ain't workin', that's the way you do it," he growls. But because the music is so consistently engaging, it's hard to object either to the "product" or its audience.
Which seems to be Knopfler's point, and the genius of "Money for Nothing," because he manages to satirize the situation without really condemning the participants. In a sense, Dire Straits immerses itself in the subject without getting wet, a trick that can't be managed often enough. Indeed, many of the songs here would benefit from similar treatment, whether "Walk of Life," which ends up as a low-brow rockabilly equivalent to "The Sultan of Swing," to "Ride Across the River," a moody bit of self-indulgence so over-burdened by cliche' that it ultimately collapses on itself.
Had Knopfler consistently managed to push through the references and resonances he toys with, "Brothers in Arms" would stand as Dire Straits' best album. As it is, the record is challenging and intriguing, worth hearing as much for its failures as its successes.