The Phantom Tollbooth
November '98 Pick of the Month
 

The Whole of the Moon: The Music of Mike Scott and The Waterboys
Artist:  Mike Scott and The Waterboys
Label:  EMI (UK)
Length: 74:15 / 16 tracks

They called it "The Big Music." Through the 1980s and into the early 90s, Mike Scott's Waterboys recorded a set of fine albums mixing nods to Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan with folk, jazz, gospel, Celtic and rock influences to produce a sound that was all their own. They may have varied musically over the years, but their trademark energy and instrumental layering is still immediately identifiable, especially with Scott's distinctive vocals resting on top.

Since their official split in the early 90s (the revolving lineup meant that for the last few years Mike Scott was the only fixture) a proper best of release has been noticeably absent. The Best of The Waterboys ‘81-'90 went some way towards filling that gap, but while it showed something of the changing face of the band, it was not a completely satisfying reminder of all the albums and excluded some entirely. Its companion b-sides and rarities collection, The Secret Life of The Waterboys, was a more satisfying album, but it didn't include many of their trademark tracks. This new release at last fills that gap, taking album tracks from both all The Waterboys's studio recordings and Mike Scott's solo recordings, and adding live versions of "A Girl Called Johnny," "Rare, Precious, and Gone," and the previously unreleased "Higher In Time."

The album opens with the band's biggest hit, "The Whole of the Moon," which still crops up from time to time on radio shows. Piano-chord driven, the song is a good example of Scott's use of metaphor and imagery, as well as his distinctive vocals. Building up to a layered climax, where the piano is joined with one of their favorite instruments, the saxophone, it is an appropriate album opener.

The live tracks are an excellent addition. Recorded in Los Angeles, "A Girl Called Johnny" is an improvement on the album version with the added energy injecting the song with a little more life. This offsets the anticlimax that "The Return of Pan" is now. It's not a bad song or a bad recording, but Scott's acoustic performance of the song at the Greenbelt festival was somehow more special and complete.

The title of that track brings us neatly to the aspect of Scott's song-writing which has long been a paradox: the spirituality. In "Glastonbury Song" he sings:

but further on he sings:
  Scott uses his immense lyrical gifts in an ambiguous way when it comes to spiritual matters and it is especially difficult to distinguish what he means by the term 'god.' Personally, I believe his path sometimes veers close to that laid down by Christ,  but he has yet to fully join it. The truth in that, or whether we need to divine the truth here, is something the listener must examine for himself. Nonetheless, the lyrics are most intriguing.

An unusually cohesive collection for an album of this nature, the last two tracks are probably the most diverse. The first of these, "When Ye Go Away," is a very traditional sounding folk tune penned by Scott, including parts of "River Road Reel" by Charlie Lennon, who appears here on violin. It is also a final chance to here the immensely talented Anthony Thistlethwaite who plays slide mandolin on this track, along with many other instruments over the rest of the album.

The final track is taken from Scott's latest solo album, Still Burning, and its orchestrated sound is a fit ending, drawing the recording to an end with a beautiful track which hints that there is still more to come from this particular songwriter.

By James Stewart (09/17/98)

Does it get any better than this? The Waterboys may not have ever reached the critical mass needed to earn the title World's Greatest Band, but the critical and fan recognition they have received is more than deserved. Their unique blend of classic and folk rock with Celtic and even jazz influences has a timeless appeal--a fact to which this most recent greatest hits collection bears solid testimony. If you are at all fond of the band, you'll be pleased to know that this is the most definitive greatest hits collection to date, including many of the Waterboys's staples from most of their incarnations, and more recent work from Mike Scott's two solo albums. If you haven't gotten to know them yet, here's a superb starting point on a most rewarding musical and spiritual exploration.

Even though the band is now officially defunct, it's a great year to be a Waterboys fan. Following the release of Mike Scott's second solo album, Still Burning, late last year in the UK and recently here in the States, we've seen a two-disc live album, The Live Adventures of The Waterboys. Both come highly recommended, and this new disc is just the icing on a wonderful three-layer cake. The Whole of the Moon boasts sixteen great songs covering nearly fifteen years of their history, including two live cuts and a never-before-released song, "Higher In Time." As an added bonus, the sleeve also provides lyrics and band photos.

Unlike their last retrospective, The Best of The Waterboys '81 - '90 which excluded more recent work, this new one offers a better view of the whole picture to date. A picture with some glaring omissions. CD time constraints prevented the inclusion of many songs that should have been on here, thus the older collection isn't entirely eclipsed. Actually, there are only four repeats which are natural choices for duplicate inclusion: "The Whole of The Moon,""Strange Boat," "Fisherman's Blues" and a previously unreleased live version "A Girl Called Johnny." There could have easily been more, as the eight songs from the previous album are also worthy of repeated recognition, especially "Spirit" and "Don't Bang the Drum." Not only that, but curiously neither collection contains some earlier hits like "A Church Not Made With Hands" and "Savage Earth Heart."

Although this album is better represented, one of the best songs from 1986's Fishermen's Blues, "We Will Not Be Lovers," should have been added as well. (At least some of these songs can be found on the recent live release.) Their most-acclaimed 1985 album, This Is The Sea, is best featured on both greatest hits packages. Between them only two songs, "Trumpets" and "Be My Enemy" are excluded. Sadly, 1990's Room to Roam, the most neglected Waterboys album, is practically overlooked on both discs. It offers only one song on either collection, "A Man Is In Love," and The Whole of the Moon ignores that album's contributions entirely. "A Life of Sundays" and "Raggle Taggle Gypsy" were obvious choices missed both times. Who knows how the powers-that-be make their selections?

At least The Whole of the Moon picks up where the other left off, with two of the better songs from 1993's Dream Harder, although even here "Good News" could have been added as well. Other personal favorites sadly absent include "Everlasting Arms" from Still Burning and "Bring ‘em All In" from the 1995 Mike Scott solo album of the same name. Sometimes you can't have it all. Obviously, a two-disc collection would have better represented The Whole of the Moon.  The answer to this dilemma:  buy them both!  Put them into your CD disc-changer and enjoy.  After all, a song as brilliant as "The Whole of The Moon" bears repeating. It's best to view both greatest hits albums as being complimentary companion pieces, especially given the low number of repeated songs. Of course, you could tape both discs, add your own choice of missing hits, and pretend you have your own box set. With The Waterboys, more is always better.

Steven Stuart Baldwin (10/8/98)

The Best of The Waterboys ‘81 - ‘91 track listing:

The Whole of the Moon track listing: