Drivers Eyes by Ian McDonald

When I heard that Ian was recording a new CD I looked forward to its release with great anticipation. However, when it finally came out, I read more than one luke-warm critique of the album, and so I didn't run right out and buy it. Mistake.

If you are expecting this album to sound like the original King Crimson, like the McDonald & Giles album, or like Foreigner, then you will be disappointed. Naturally. But why expect those things? The very thing that Robert Fripp complains about with regard to new King Crimson music is audience expectations ruining the musical experience before it happens. Well, the same applies to Driver's Eyes (and to most other music, I suppose). To quote one of Ian's songs from the new album (although these words are applied in a different context on the album itself): We must move on. Time doesn't stand still.

So, I implore the potential buyer to listen with a clean slate, an open mind, and without expectations. Judge the music on its own very formidable merits. However, people will always try to describe an experience by putting it in the context of known past experiences, so if it will help people, I am willing to go out on a limb here and make some musical comparisons, provided they are taken with a grain or two of salt.

The opening chords of Overture, behind Ian's intro on flute, momentarily take me back to the sound of the old Traffic. Recalling Steve Winwood's contributions to the McDonald & Giles album, I brace myself for the sequel to McDonald & Giles. But it doesn't happen. After that beginning tease, Overture breaks into a pretty straightforward, not very challenging instrumental piece. This I believe is the source of the disappointment and the luke warm response to this release.

But once you get past that (and it may well take 3 or 4 listenings to the CD as it did for me), both this song and the following number In Your Hands are actually pretty good. Sure, they don't sound like KC, McD&G or Traffic. They sound more like the Moody Blues actually (with piano added in the second song). I mean that in a good way - I happen to like the (earlier) Moodies.

While Ian is not making another Foreigner, KC, or McD&G album, on the other hand he is not forsaking his roots, either. You are a Part of Me doesn't sound like Foreigner, but it does recall Foreigner, at least their gentler side. Later on he makes a more direct reference to his former band by having Lou Gramm do guest vocals on Straight Back to You. Yes, I could imagine this as a Foreigner song, and it's not just Gramm's vocals. The lyrics as well as the rhythm parts of the song all conjure up images of Foreigner. But You are a Part of Me is less direct, and actually stands quite well on its own as a very tastefully done song. Maybe part of that is due to the guest drummer, Mike Giles?

Sax Fifth Avenue is a smooth jazzy sounding instrumental which features Ian's sax and keyboard work. It starts off very mellow and calm, but slowly builds until the funky break/key change about 3 and a half minutes into the song. One has the image of water building up until the dam breaks or the water spills over.

When Ian was recording, he invited Robert Fripp to lay down some guitar tracks on the album. Robert accepted, but then backed out later due to scheduling conflicts with his soundscapes performances. That is my one regret about this album which remains after 5 listens. That RF wasn't able to contribute. Indeed it was on You are a Part of Me and the later track, Forever and Ever, which features words (and backing vocals) by John Wetton and some amazing flute work by Ian, where I think, as good as these tunes are, they could have been elevated to even greater heights by RF's Soundscaping. And on the interim track Sax Fifth Avenue would have gone well not with scoundscaping but with an actual guitar part - something along the lines of the guitar accompaniment to the King Crimson song Cat Food. But here's an interesting tidbit - a "Maxwell McDonald" is credited with acoustic guitar on Forever and Ever. Could this be Ian's son?

The next track, Saturday Night in Tokyo is the closest this album comes to actual rock and roll. Which means I don't like this track as much as the others. But it's good as far as rock goes. If you like Fleetwood Mac, you'd like this.

Hawaii is a very beautiful instrumental piece with some very pleasant chord changes, which kind of remind me of the old Byrds, without the twangy guitar sound.

Then comes the homage to Foreigner, Straight Back to You. Except with Steve Hackett on guitar. More precisely, this is what Foreigner should have sounded like.

If I Was features another guest guitarist, Peter Frampton. Another very good song, but the hardest on the album to pigeonhole. I don't know, the lyrics are almost Beatlesesque, but the sound isn't. I can't think of what the sound reminds me of....I'll come \ back to this later maybe.

If you were told that there was one track on the album that was a total collaboration of McDonald & Giles and nobody else, and if you listened to the album and tried to guess which song it was, you would have no trouble spotting it. It's the penultimate track on the CD, entitled Demimonde (Small World in French?). Not that it sounds like their 1970 album -- but it does recall that album without relying on its sound. Giles doesn't cut loose as much as I'd like to hear, but man is he good. And Ian displays a wide range of his multi-instrumental talents, by playing bass, guitars, electric piano, Hammond Organ, Alto Sax, and synthesizer. What, no flute? Ian & Mike, if you read this, please lock yourselves into the studio by yourselves and make an entire album together. I have a feeling it would be great even if it bore no relationship at all to your previous album.

The final track, Let There Be Light features vocals by Gary Brooker, and words by Peter Sinfield. Yes, because of Brooker, one is reminded of Procol Harum, of course. It's a good connection. But oddly, even though Sinfield is credited only with words and not with the music, I feel this song would be equally at home on Sinfield's Stillusion CD. Or perhaps on a King Crimson album from the Sinfield era, like Epitaph with a string section replacing the mellotron or something. Interesting song title, considering that the planned title of the forthcoming King Crimson album is alleged to be The ConstruKction of Light. I'm sure this is nothing other than a total coincidence, but I can't resist suggesting that, after 31 years, in may still be the case that the yellow jester does not play, but gently pulls the strings. How's that for multiple recursive irony?

Well, there you have it. I've tried to relate the music to familiar experiences you might have had in the past listening to other groups. Such comparisons always must fall short of capturing the experience, and may do no more than to reveal the idiosyncrasies and shortcomings of the reviewer. So forget everything I said, go out, buy the album and just listen. Do yourself a favor and listen several times. This album will grow on you.


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