Edinburgh-born singer/guitarist/pianist Mike Scott formed the Waterboys in London, singing bombastic folky rock derived in equal parts from U2, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. On The Waterboys (and its five-song American condensation, later supplanted by a belated issue of the entire LP), Scott, saxophonist Anthony Thistlethwaite, an organist and various rhythm players squeeze every ounce of drama into his preciously poetic lyrics and pseudo-epic melodies. Enough of a selfconsciously sensitive artiste to confuse extended song length and artistic depth, Scott comes off as a modestly talented blowhard.
Having reused three of the eight songs (including the Rupert Hine-produced “A Girl Called Johnny”) from the early EPs on The Waterboys, two more (including the torturous I-read-a-book-so-now-I-understand-history “Red Army Blues” — all eight minutes of it!) were recycled on A Pagan Place, a horrific realization of Scott’s grandiose vision. With Welsh keyboardist Karl Wallinger and a drummer joining the Scott/Thistlethwaite nucleus, the Waterboys overlay mountains of acoustic guitars, horns and vocals to build majestically Spectoresque sand castles (“Church Not Made with Hands,” “A Pagan Place”) that are as flimsy as Scott’s sophomoric lyrics. If Jimmy Webb had happened into the studio, an ultimate remake of “MacArthur Park” would have been inevitable. (Incidentally, one of the record’s backup singers is Eddi Reader, later the voice of Fairground Attraction.)
An overambitious variety of production styles — piano-based simplicity on “Spirit,” vocal gimmicks and “Penny Lane” horns on “The Whole of the Moon,” the Pagan Place-styled title track and the insufferable amped-up guitar rock of “Don’t Bang the Drum” and “Be My Enemy” — leaves This Is the Sea an unfocused mess. Scott’s melodic sense (if not his lyrics) is actually improving, although habitual overstatement makes it hard to notice.
Wallinger went off to form World Party and Scott (who had sung “Old England is dying” on This Is the Sea) moved to Ireland. Coincident with his relocation to County Galway, Scott formed a new band with Thistlethwaite (now playing more mandolin than sax) and moved to erase most traces of the former Waterboys formulation in favor of a wholesome acoustic folk sound, largely shaped by an important new arrival, Irish fiddler Steve Wickham. In a stirring case of self-willed ethnic transubstantiation, Fisherman’s Blues (which includes the song “World Party”) unveiled the Waterboys Mark II, a neo-traditional Irish folk-rock group. Without raising questions as to Scott’s sincerity, entitlement or motivation, wholesale appropriation of a cultural that still has genuine practitioners remains a fairly dubious (albeit not unknown) basis for a band. Where the Pogues concocted an original identity from old ingredients, the Waterboys merely copy what they’ve heard. But in fairness, the album is not entirely bad: the Van Morrison-stylings are superficially attractive, and rollicking songs like “And a Bang on the Ear,” “Has Anybody Here Seen Hank?” and “When Will Be Married?” make fine use of the folk idiom. The Waterboys don’t bring much originality to this music, but they imitate it well enough to get by. (The CD adds a pair of acoustic instrumentals featuring Wickham.)
Scott’s identification with Ireland gets even more intense on Room to Roam, a sprightly mixture of fiddle, tin whistle, accordion, mandolin. With appropriately rustic melodies and dreamy, romantic subject matter, the Waterboys strive desperately to be a youthful pop version of the Chieftains. Scott pledges his troth to the Emerald Isle in “Islandman” (one of the album’s two incongruous electric rockers; there’s also a swanky ballroom ballad) and celebrates the town in which the LP was recorded. But the album’s best track is a straight rendition of the genuinely traditional “Raggle Taggle Gypsy,” an exercise which underscores the shortcomings in Scott’s own songwriting and the overall redundancy of the group. Room to Roam — fiddle tunes notwithstanding — misses the point of folk music by a country mile.
In 1991, evidently having satisfied his unquenchable thirst for Gaelic culture, Scott packed himself off to New York and formed a completely new band to indulge his new passion: mainstream guitar rock. Beginning with an obligatory declaration of “The New Life,” Dream Harder is a major drag, both musically and in its multiple flaky announcements of faith. Scott tries religion (“I just found God!,” he shouts in “Glastonbury Song”); in “Corn Circles,” a song whose exaggerated vintage theatricality must be an intentional pun, he prattles on about his belief in farm patterns made by aliens. “The Return of Jimi Hendrix,” a nonsensical dream served up as a Western clip-clop rocker, makes the late musician the object of Scott’s desperate adoration; sitars and other flower-power implements join him for the simpleminded wordplay of “Spiritual City.” With that, the Waterboys ceased to exist.
The two compilations cover, respectively, the obvious and the obscure. The Best of the Waterboys ’81-’90 evenly samples the first five albums, omitting some worthwhile tracks but basically following the winding progress of the band’s first decade. For those already up to speed, The Secret Life of the Waterboys 81-85 is an intriguing fifteen-song collection of outtakes, demos, radio sessions, concert takes and alternate mixes from the band’s early years. (There’s even a 1981 radio session item by Scott’s pre-Waterboys band, Another Pretty Face.) Unfamiliar versions of “A Pagan Place” and “Don’t Bang the Drum” provide an interesting look through the band’s musical treasure chest, though nothing here is as powerful or convincing as the album versions.
After dissolving the band, Scott went solo with Bring ‘Em All In. The album’s uncluttered, folk/acoustic style is much better suited to his increasingly mellow singing style, making it more enjoyable than anything he’s done since Fisherman’s Blues. Scott is still carried away with his new age idealism, though: the lyrics of “Long Way to the Light” and “Building the City of Light” are both so insufferably earnest and overpoweringly positive that they distract all attention away from any merits the music might have. Fortunately, the shimmery, evocative title track and the hushed, soothing “She Is So Beautiful” redeem the effort. The jaunty, exuberant “City Full of Ghosts (Dublin)” is another worthwhile track. The album’s laid-back stance isn’t as exciting as the Waterboys’ salad days, and Scott’s current infatuations aren’t as inspiring as his Emerald Isle fixation, but this is a step back in the right direction.
When Thistlethwaite, a member of Scott’s company from the outset through Room to Roam (and a busy session player with plenty of outside credits), put a song entitled “Muddy Waterboy” at the head of his 1993 solo album, it surely meant that he was ready to unload on his longtime employer’s populist pretensions. No such luck: it turned out the Leicester native had been nursing an entirely different jones the whole time, one to do with McKinley Morganfield rather than Celtic traditionalism. Aesop Wrote a Fable is a straight-up Chicago blues album, mixing a few originals with classics of the canon from Willie Dixon and Sonny Boy Williamson as well as some from Peter Green and John Mayall. Thistlethwaite’s a good enough singer, and the lively arrangements (three with horns) refresh the oldies enough to justify the effort. Former bandmate Karl Wallinger guests on piano.