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Rob Dickinson - Fresh Wine for the Horses (Sanctuary)

27 September 2008

He still has it.

ROB DICKINSON spent the nineties as singer of CATHERINE WHEEL (CW), one of the decade’s best and most underrated groups. Then just months after Y2K fears subsided, CW fans had a new set of worries after the release of Wishville, a good but ultimately disappointing record within the CW oeuvre.

Not surprisingly, things got quiet. In fact we heard nothing from the group until 2005 when Dickinson emerged to release his first solo offering – Fresh Wine for the Horses. The record was reissued in June with some notable changes – and all for the better. The song order was shuffled, some songs were tweaked and a separate disk of six winning live acoustic CW cuts was added.

On Fresh Wine, Dickinson’s sweet as honey voice, passionate delivery and carefully arranged melodic compositions give life to songs about love, mortality and second chances. Though the topics are weighty, the songs are extremely accessible and well produced. What’s especially striking is that because the record’s sound is so easy on the ears you could easily mistake it for being light on substance, when that’s simply not the case.

The mid-tempo album opener, “My Name is Love,” is admittedly very radio-friendly but is a hell of a well-written song. “Oceans,” also fantastic, shows off Dickinson’s song writing skills and vocal prowess to powerful effect.

“The End of the World,” included only on the reissue, is big in every sense of the word. Grand in sound and scope, it tackles how one would spend the last five minutes on earth knowing the end was neigh and it doesn’t disappoint.

Yes, Dickinson flirts with melodrama but unlike Wile E. Coyote, who invariably chases the Road Runner only to fall off a cliff, Dickinson is more a like an experienced horse that gallops near the periphery of a jagged cliff yet knows enough to not fall off.

In the reviews I’ve read about this album, “Bad Beauty” is largely ignored, which is a shame. This meditative song is infused with raw feeling, and evokes, though not heavy-handedly, the more pastoral and exploratory aspects of CW’s masterwork Adam and Eve. It’s brilliant and deserves more attention. (Not surprisingly, in an interview, Dickinson said he wrote this song just “days afterward” 9/11 while living in NYC.)

The aptly titled “Towering and Flowering” also is well worth hearing but for different reasons. Whereas “Bad Beauty” plumbs mortality’s limits and the temporal nature of existence, “Towering and Flowering” conveys renewal, hope and transcendence.

This album isn’t without fault however. Dickinson still sometimes struggles lyrically. “Intelligent People,” which is otherwise pleasant, includes the wince-inducing chorus: “You’ve just gotta smile and hang out with intelligent people.” It’s not sung sarcastically (as far as I can tell) unfortunately.

Also, the album’s cover art is dire (it shows Dickinson releasing seahorses back into the ocean). As fellow BT blogger Matthew Berlyant pointed out in June, the album’s artwork more resembles “an ENRIQUE IGLESIAS cover than something befitting the man who wrote “Black Metallic,” “Crank,” “Future Boy” and so many other beloved CATHERINE WHEEL classics.” So true. So true. That said, this album is well worth having.

Interestingly, Dickinson’s sweeping songs evoke CW to the point that had the group released a record today it might’ve sounded somewhat similar to this. But that’s not a bad thing at all because Dickinson has improved greatly upon Wishville while still keeping the kernel of the Dickinson/CW magic front and center.

Also, according to Dickinson, CW never formally split up so it’s not outside the realm of possibilities that we may yet see a new CW record, a tour, or both. Stay tuned….