Pros: Great introduction to Stevens' music; songs which speak on many levels
Cons: Takes some getting used to
The Bottom Line: Support Muslim Aid!
My interest in Cat Stevens music stemmed directly from my reversion to Islam, and anyone who reads this can probably guess why. Anytime someone asks about famous Muslims, the first name to pop out of their mouths is most likely going to be Yusuf Islam. Cat Stevens. Even before Muhammad Ali, theyll name Cat Stevens. Before Malcolm X, theyll name Cat Stevens. Mr. Islams self-written reversion story is posted on practically every Islamic website on the internet, and is written inside some of those free pamphlets given out at mosques to people who ask. Everyone whos even considered reverting to Islam has probably read it in one variation or another. It was only a matter of time before my curiosity overwhelmed me.
The first time I played a Cat Stevens cd, I was a bit shocked, and didnt quite know what to make of it. Here was this soft-voiced folk singer calmly strumming away on an acoustic guitar, echoing off the eardrums of a 21-year-old man who had been raised on gangsta rap and, in the tradition of his hometown, classic rock. I had spent my teen years alternating between the earth-shattering beats of Dr. Dre and A Tribe Called Quest and the otherworldly, scorching guitars of bands like Aerosmith, Rush and Van Halen. Music was black and white to me then, and if it wasnt in one of those styles, I couldnt be bothered.
Not knowing what I really thought of this guy, I gave the music another listen, and then another. I payed close attention to the lyrics and the music and decided it was pretty good. And it seemed to have one of those cant-quite-put-my-finger-on-it qualities, something which was drawing me back to it again and again. I dont know when it happened, but one day I just noticed and said it to myself: I... I... I like this guy! And so a new Cat Stevens fan was born. But Im by no means any kind of expert on his music. I dont own any of his cds yet. If anyone would like to make suggestions to whats good and bad, Ill listen.
Now on to the cd itself. As any self-respecting Cat Stevens fan would know, there are essentially three Cat Stevens personas. The first was Teen Pop Sensation Cat Stevens, who burst onto the music scene with the albums Matthew and Son and New Masters. He of the whistle-clean, black velvet suits, of the lush, laden musical style, and of the 30-cigarette-a-day smoking habit which laid him up in the hospital for nearly a year. When he emerged from the hospital, he became Contemplative Cat Stevens, the Cat Stevens most of his fans have come to know and love. It was this persona which made him a record collection staple and a household name the world over, with nine albums and Allah knows how many records sold. When his brother presented him with a translation of the Quran, he began applying Islamic values into his life and eventually became Muslim Cat Stevens, aka Yusuf Islam, in 1977.
Its my sad duty to inform any of my brothers or sisters in Islam who may be reading this that The Very Best of Cat Stevens only covers the first two personas. Its a real shame, since Mr. Islam could have made more charity money hawking a song or two from The Life of the Last Prophet, I Have No Cannons that Roar, and A is for Allah so more people would develop an interest. Or create more demand to get them into the mainstream music stores here, at the very least. The very informative sleeve, however, does contain an advertisment for his Islamic record label, Mountain of Light, so I guess we werent screwed THAT badly.
The first two Cat Stevens personas are covered in chronological order. You dont get much of Teen Pop Sensation Cat Stevens, understandably, because he really didnt last very long. The only two songs covering this persona are Matthew and Son, the title tune of his first album, and The First Cut is the Deepest from New Masters. The first song is a short, fun little ditty which seems to be a description of some guys workplace. The First Cut is the Deepest, though, is one of the tracks for the skip button. Stevens appears to want to come off sounding dramatic, but at times he sounds whiny. Its one of those annoying Celine Dion-like power ballads, before power ballads became a staple of music.
Ive Got a Thing About Seeing My Grandson Grow Old is a very nice song which was apparently recorded during the Mona Bone Jakon sessions but never found its way onto the album. The only two places to find it these days are on this cd and in the boxed set. The song is a nice, simple little piece featuring Stevens and his guitar, with few if any little studio tricks. It shows just how talented a songwriter Stevens is, as Stevens cleverly uses the title to sing about getting his life into order, how he wants things to go faster: Ive got no time for silly chitter chatter Im on my way After all, if someone starts a career and family soon enough in life, he could live to see grandchildren age, if only slightly, right?
The next eight songs cover works from Stevens two folk masterpieces, Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat. Now Im going to commit what is probably considered the ultimate Cat Stevens fan blasphemy by saying: I dont like Father and Son. Im very aware of how grand it is musically, and how creative it is, but I still found it overly sappy and overdramatic. For those who dont know, the song features two sides of a dialogue, a low-singing Cat Stevens as a father bestowing some world wisdom onto a high-singing Cat Stevens as a somewhat rebellious son. In fact, if I had to judge Tea for the Tillerman based on just the four songs on this cd, Id say it was overrated. Not bad, just overrated. Wild World, Where Do the Children Play?, and Hard Headed Woman are all fine songs, but they just seem to lack a certain quality which would make me want to place them among my favorites. Theyre still quite good though, especially Where Do the Children Play?
The song repotoire from Teaser and the Firecat fares much better. It wouldnt be a proper Teaser repotoire without the glorious Morning has Broken, a traditional hymn apparently rediscovered by Stevens in a London bookstore. Morning has Broken is every bit as glorious as a clear days sunrise, with a beautiful classical-sounding piano accompanying Stevens strikingly contrasting soft, high voice. The other half of the proper Teaser repotoire would be Peace Train, which is about what youd probably expect it to be about: Stevens desire to see world peace. It moves pretty fast in contrast to the other three Teaser songs, and it includes a catchy, pleasant hook, multiple voices singing in the background and even hand clapping. All done with just the guitar. Its a wonderful song, one of my favorites.
The Wind, and Moonshadow round out the collection from Teaser. Stevens more spiritual side begins to show in The Wind: I listen to the wind, the wind of my soul Where Ill end up, what I think, Only God really knows Its not two minutes long, but its nice while it lasts.
My favorite song on the cd is Sitting, a very uplifting Catch Bull at Four number in which Stevens sings about groping at the unknown in his spiritual quest: All I know is all I feel Right now I feel a power going in my head It starts off with just Stevens in his soft voice accompanied by the piano. Soon, Stevens goes into his hard voice, and a drum and bass are added.
Although his humanitarian nature thrives throughout the cd, Stevens spiritual side is presented to us very little. The Wind, Morning has Broken, Sitting, and Oh Very Young seem to be the only songs which really go into length about the subject. Im sure some people will make a case for Majik of Magiks too, but I have trouble figuring that one out, so Im keeping it off the list here. Even if it is one of his spiritual forays, it doesnt change what I just said. Five songs featuring Stevens digging into his spirituality, tops. Out of 20. But you shouldnt take my word for it. Im a lousy song interpreter.
Tracks 13 through 20 make sure to catch the rest of Cat Stevens discography, including his cover of Sam Cookes Another Saturday Night, from his Greatest Hits set from 1975. Its a good thing, and all of the songs - with the exception of Foreigner Suite - are outstanding, but after the very clear effort thrown into the selections from Tillerman and Teaser, they feel kind of like afterthoughts. Catch Bull at Four is represented through two songs (the second one being Cant Keep it In), and everything from there on out has just one.
While the sleeve says Stevens is a master of many different kinds of instruments, the most dominant instruments on the cd are the guitar and the piano. The guitar is Stevens instrument of choice in most of his more personal compositions. He sings in a more quiet tone when he strums his guitar, in a voice one would expect to hear around a campfire. The piano has a more majestic showing, even though its only heard on a few songs. Especially in Majik of Majiks, a rythemic song which seems to overshadow and dominate the entire second half of the cd. Stevens voice may take some getting used to. His lower voice sounds just a little bit nasal, and his high voice has one of those indescribable qualities which I can never seem to place. If youre not used to this kind of music, it can even sound annoying when you first hear it. But after a few listens, it grows on you, and youll wonder how you ever thought these songs could be sung in any other way.
If youre a new Cat Stevens fan or just a bit curious about his music, this is a great place to start. Stevens released a Greatest Hits compilation back in 1975, but this cd spans almost his entire career, starting with Matthew and Son and ending with Just Another Night from 1978s Back to Earth. If you want to choose between the two, it should be this one, no contest. It contains many of the same songs as Greatest Hits, including Another Saturday Night, and has a few extra not heard on Greatest Hits. The Mona Bone Jakan reject is a nice little addition, and the sleeve even contributes to this cds greatness with its abundance of information on Stevens life, career, influences, and journey to Islam. If the boxed set is a bit too expensive for you to pick up, this makes a fine substitute until you have the money. To sum up, Ill refer you to a Los Angeles Times quote written in the sleeve: He is an exceptional singer and artist, able to combine strength, and fragiliy and sometimes mystery in his highly personal compositions.
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Nicholas Croston (BaronSamedi3)
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Producers include: Mike Hurst, Paul Samwell-Smith, Cat Stevens. Compilation producer: Bill Levinson. Digitally remastered by Ted Jensen. Personnel: Cat Stevens (vocals). Audio Mixer: Paul Hicks. Liner Note Author: Malu Halasa. Photographers: G. Hanekroot; Michael Putland; David Redfern. Before converting to Islam in 1978, the British-born Cat Stevens blazed the trail for the sensitive singer-songwriter movement that got its start in the earlier part of the decade. Containing both early and late representations of Stevens' impressive canon, VERY BEST OF surpasses the wildly popular GREATEST HITS collection that preceded it. Starting with the more lushly orchestrated material of the late 60s ("Matthew & Son," "The First Cut Is The Deepest" which Rod Stewart turned into a mid-70s hit), this collection captures Stevens' transformation into an introspective artisan who succeeded with a unique brand of folk-pop. Moving from a rumored ode to actress Patti D'Arbanville ("Lady D'Arbanville" featuring flutist Pete... Song List: Disc 1 1. Matthew and Son 2. First Cut Is the Deepest 3. Lady d'Arbanville 4. I've Got a Thing About Seeing My Grandson Grow Old (previously unreleased) 5. Wild World 6. Where Do the Children Play? 7. Hard Headed Woman 8. Father and Son 9. Wind 10. Morning Has Broken 11. Moonshadow 12. Peace Train 13. Sitting 14. Can't Keep It In 15. Foreigner Suite (excerpt) 16. Oh Very Young 17. Another Saturday Night 18. Majik of Majiks 19. (Remember the Days of...