Steve Winwood – About Time

Steve Winwood - About TimeA long time ago, Steve Winwood was high on my list of favorite artists, back in the days when he was milking that Yamaha DX7 sound for all it was worth – and I loved it, frankly. I was a bit let down when he followed up great albums like Arc Of A Diver and Talking Back To The Night with a long period of silence, and then the mellowed-out Back In The High Life, and then another long hiatus after which he took a head-first plunge into low-tech rock with Roll With It. About Time is a minor letdown to the 80s Winwood fan in me, in that it continues along that path. In retrospect, and having learned a lot more about Winwood’s background since my teenage years, I realize that low-tech rock is what the man’s all about, and perhaps what he’s best at. And on that level, I can enjoy About Time quite a lot.

This time around, instead of trying to recapture his electric-organ-virtuoso Spencer Davis Group days, Steve Winwood is leaning on a sparser, bluesier sound. Every song on About Time sounds like a tune that evolved organically from a loose jam session – and generally, if you’re listening to something with a blues-based sound, that can’t help but be a good thing. And while synthesizers have come and gone out of fashion with him, Winwood still has a full command of his most powerful voice – he still has one of the most distinctive, effortless-sounding voices in rock music. He never sounds like he’s straining to hit a note, and he shows no sign of having written his material around a limited range.

“Cigano” is easily one of the album’s standout tracks, but the show-stealers here are two slow-bake numbers, “Silvia” and most especially “Horizon”, which is one of the best songs Winwood has ever done, hands-down. Now, one byproduct of the easy, bluesy style of most of About Time‘s tracks is that it can fade into the background a bit – even, I’ve found, if you’re listening on headphones. But those standout tracks (and your mileage may vary one which songs are the best on the CD) make it worthwhile. You’ll know which ones you like when you like ’em.

rating: 3 out of 4It’s a good album, and it’s good to hear Steve Winwood getting back into the swing of things. I wouldn’t kick him in the shins for giving us a great pop song like he used to, but songs like “Horizon” are timeless and impossible to pigeonhole – and I’ll gladly take that too.

Order this CD

  1. Different Light (6:36)
  2. Cigano (For The Gypsies) (6:21)
  3. Final Hour (5:36)
  4. Why Can’t We Live Together? (6:39)
  5. Domingo Morning (5:07)
  6. Now That You’re Alive (5:29)
  7. Bully (5:40)
  8. Phoenix Rising (7:27)
  9. Horizon (4:31)
  10. Walking On (4:55)
  11. Silvia (Who Is She?) (11:28)

Released by: Wincraft Music
Release date: 2003
Total running time: 69:51

Steve Winwood – Talking Back To The Night

Steve Winwood - Talking Back To The NightIn 1980, Steve Winwood carved out a persistent niche of the radio airwaves with several tunes from his Arc Of A Diver album – and that niche was well-deserved, given Winwood’s synth-driven (but still more rock ‘n’ roll than new wave) distinctive sound. Sadly, the follow-up to that, while it did yield hits of its own, lacked the “oomph” of Arc‘s originality; if anything, it smacks in a few places of reheated leftovers.

If anyone remembers one song off of Talking Back To The Night, it’s bound to be Valerie, a great song with a soaring DX-7 synth solo and some much-misheard lyrics. I never have gotten around to liking “Big Girls Walk Away” in the 20 years I’ve had to listen to it. The title track is a virtual carbon copy of Arc Of A Diver‘s lengthy “Night Train” single (a favorite of disc jockeys in gastric distress everywhere). The real gems aside from “Valerie” are “Still In The Game” and the joyful little number called “Help Me Angel”, 2 out of 4which has a chord progression that just gives me a good feeling.

A mixed bag, but with the exception of “Still In The Game”, the good parts later appeared on Winwood’s Chronicles compilation, saving me the trouble of having to hear the rest of Talking Back To The Night again just to hear the good songs.

Order this CD

  1. Valerie (4:05)
  2. Big Girls Walk Away (3:51)
  3. And I Go (4:12)
  4. While There’s A Candle Burning (3:11)
  5. Still In The Game (4:51)
  6. It Was Happiness (4:58)
  7. Help Me Angel (5:08)
  8. Talking Back To The Night (5:44)
  9. There’s A River (4:40)

Released by: Island
Release date: 1982
Total running time: 40:50

Steve Winwood – Arc Of A Diver

Steve Winwood - Arc Of A DiverIf you were alive and capable of listening to a rock station in 1980, I can guarantee you you’ve heard almost half this album. If that year had an overplayed feel-good motivational song that crowded the airwaves, it had to be “While You See A Chance”. And that airplay overkill wasn’t without reason – it’s actually a good song that exemplifies the sound of this album: solid old-school rock musicianship with a bit of new technology to play with.

Steve Winwood had turned out one previous solo album, a self-titled LP in 1977, in his attempt to distance himself from his legacy as the Spencer Davis Group’s “little Stevie Winwood.” Winwood had also been one-third of Traffic (along with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker), and it was that group to which his debut bore the most similarity. With Arc Of A Diver, Winwood boldly charted a clear path away from the “classic rock” sound with which he had become so closely identified – and to which, in time, he would return.

The synthesizer sound which is so predominant on Arc Of A Diver is the then-new (but later almost ubiquitous) Yamaha DX-7. Winwood made the DX-7 sound his sound with his mastery of that keyboard’s pitch-bend wheel, which lent so much unique character to “While You See A Chance”‘s intro, “Arc Of A Diver”, and his biggest hit single of the early 80s, 1982’s “Valerie”. Growing up playing piano and electronic keyboards, I ached to find that sound. When I finally got a fairly high-end consumer-grade Yamaha keyboard in high school, I made it my mission to bend the pitch-bending ability to my will – all because I wanted to sound just like Winwood did in 1980. Apparently some other people did too – Winwood was called on as a session player to lend that unique sound to artists such as George Harrison.

It’s not all electronic wizardry, though. Real live piano, guitar, bass and drums provide a solid backbone for a synth sound that Winwood knew would be different an alien to the audience, and with that real live rock as a foundation, Arc Of A Diver is safely prevented from falling into experimental new-wave territory. What’s staggering, especially in hindsight given the still-evolving state of recording technology at the time, is how many of those instruments Winwood played himself.

The title track itself is a wondrous mix of soulful, bluesy rock and unusual lyrics. “Since I don’t know your secret code, I’ll need my love to translate,” Winwood sings in the chorus. Tell us about it, Steve.

“Night Train” is a bit of an overblown attempt at a longform song which is nonetheless very enjoyable with its driving beat. (The song’s sheer length, topping out at just under eight minutes, made it a godsend to many a disc jockey who needed to visit the men’s room for a bit. Trust me, I know. I’ve hit the “start” button before and sprinted down the hall as the opening chords rang out.)

One song I’ve always felt is underrated is the relaxing “Spanish Dancer”, both for its music and its lyrics. It’s a bit repetitive, but that lends it a bit of a mesmerizing quality which is probably what kept radio from discovering it.

I was disappointed when, after the much more middle-of-the-road, mainstream rock effort that was 1986’s Back In The High Life, Winwood abandoned his DX-7 and went for a more traditional sound with 4 out of 4Roll With It. On the one hand, we’d grown accustomed to Winwood’s signature 80s sound and there was a danger it was making all of his songs sound the same. But on the other hand, it’s a sound I quite liked – and no one has taken up the challenge of keeping it alive. I miss it. And I guess that’s why I’m so fond of Arc Of A Diver.

Order this CD

  1. While You See A Chance (5:13)
  2. Arc Of A Diver (5:29)
  3. Second-Hand Woman (3:34)
  4. Slowdown Sundown (5:34)
  5. Spanish Dancer (5:59)
  6. Night Train (7:51)
  7. Dust (6:22)

Released by: Island
Release date: 1980
Total running time: 40:02