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Dire Straits - Brothers In Arms (20th Anniversary Edition) Print E-mail
Tuesday, 16 August 2005

Dire Straits  
Brothers in Arms - 20th Anniversary Edition
format: DualDisc
label: Warner Bros.
release year: 2005
performance: 7.5
sound: 6.5
reviewed by: Charles Andrews

Image Sure, sure, sure. You’ve got this album. Somewhere. Or you did have it at one time. Dog ate it. Disappeared at a party. Ex took off with it, along with that Krug ’88 and your heart and several other things she did not bring into the cohabitation. Yeah, you and 25 million other jakes. No, seriously.
For all the decades of Billboard and other charts, Soundscan sales figures and the fiduciary interest a lot of people from artists to managers to labels to ex-bandmates to ex-wives to the IRS have in how many copies an album sold, it would seem there is no reliable way to gauge worldwide sales. Several sessions of Internet searching everything in sight brought no hard figures but one inescapable conclusion: this is one of the biggest-selling albums of all time.

Maybe that’s not news to you, but it surprised me. Ask me who would be in the Top 20 of all time and I would say Dark Side, Back in Black, Eagles Greatest Hits or Hotel California or both, Rumours, Sgt. Pepper and maybe the White album or Abbey Road, Meat Loaf, several by Michael Jackson of course, probably one or two by Garth Brooks and that stupid Shania Twain mega-hit, Boston, one or two by Led Zeppelin, probably a couple by Whitney, Saturday Night Fever and Mariah Carey’s latest megatrocity.

That’s a pretty close guess, as it turns out, leaving out only dreckmeisters Backstreet Boys and Celine Dion. I’m referring to a Wikipedia list taken from the RIAA, the recording organization created in 1952 to monitor frequency levels in LPs but which now administers licenses and royalties and certifies gold/platinum/diamond sales awards and, oh yes, is also using every strong-arm and questionably legal means possible to obtain what is supposed to be confidential information about your Internet activity to get the Feds to knock on your door and take you away in handcuffs if they think you downloaded a song without paying for it. But I digress.

Brothers in Arms is not an album I would have thought to include, not even in the Top 30 or 40, perhaps. Two explanations. One, I’m an American, and Dire Straits are not that big here. The RIAA lists for U.S. sales have DS, as a group, coming in at #140 in total sales, and Brothers in Arms in a 23-way tie for #100 on the list of best-selling albums of all time, with nine million. Even that figure surprised me a bit because (explanation two) I have always underestimated the willingness of the public to shell out big bucks for an album when all they really want is The Song. In this case, it’s the archetype of The Song, “Money for Nothing,” or, as we all refer to it, “I Want My MTV.” More on that later.

Worldwide – is a different story. Artists we’re barely aware of can be huge stars on the rest of the globe. Cliff Richard – who? – is Britain’s Elvis, he’s that big. According to one fairly reliable chart I saw, he’s sold more than 250,000,000 records! As have Greece’s Nana Mouskouri, and some Russian chick I’ve never heard of, and of course Abba (did it in only eight years). Three French singers have topped 100 million, as have some Indian guy who didn’t start until 1992 and the Royal Canadians big band from the 1930s-‘50s, when there weren’t even 100 million people on the planet, right? While Bob Marley was getting virtually no airplay or recognition in the U.S. he was topping charts and filling stadiums everywhere else. When he flew into Milan for a concert, 100,000 people showed up at the airport to greet him. That was about the same time he played the Roxy nightclub in Los Angeles.

So you might understand my shock, as a myopic Yank, to see Brothers in Arms clock in somewhere between at least 15 million sales and more likely 25 million. So – it’s an important album. So – how does it sound in its new 20th Anniversary Edition re-release? Pretty unimpressive. Worse than I remembered, actually. Irritating, now.

Keep in mind, I am a bit of a Mark Knopfler, and therefore Dire Straits, fan. I gave his most recent solo work, Shangri-La, a rave review in these pages not long ago. Some have called him bland, pretentious, a Dylan-Springsteen knock-off, a yuppie rocker. Others (with clearer vision) celebrate his unique, sophisticated songwriting skills, his virtuoso guitar playing (you can tell a lick is his within five seconds; it’s rare to be that distinctive) applied to his pithy off-beat tales of romance and irony, sung with a voice I think is one of the most disarmingly communicative in the whole pop universe. But Brothers is not even the best Dire Straits album. So why the astronomical sales, and the attention to this 20th Anniversary Edition?

“I Want My … I Want My MTV” is why, plain and simple. That song defined huge. It got played to death, for years. Face it: you and I may have gotten sick of it decades ago, but it’s A Great Fuckin’ Song. It was monumental inspiration to start the number with Sting (who co-wrote with Knopfler) wailing his stratospheric choirboy plea enveloped in synthesizers building a stairway to heaven, escalating incrementally at the climax to an intensity savagely exploded by one of the most irresistible dirty rock guitar riffs in history. You couldn’t walk into an audio store anywhere in the mid- to late-‘80s without having “Money for Nothing” thrown on to demonstrate a system’s sonic qualities. Which is kind of funny, because nothing that demonstrable happens for the first 70 seconds. I guess that was a minute-10 of shuffling-feet, stupid-grins anticipation. Followed by ecstatic grins, and “I’ll take it!” The system, and the disc. One of the first albums released on compact disc, it supposedly sold more copies than there were CD players in existence. Think about it.

So here’s the long and short of it. Besides “Money,” there’s the irresistible shuffle “Walk of Life” (my favorite on this album) and the leadoff song “So Far Away” is really nice, and … that’s about it for me. After three strong openers, you get the total seatbelt-snapping shift to the Brecker brothers’ dreamy trumpet and saxophone in the key of Kenny G in “Your Latest Trick,” and you wonder where it’s going, wonder if somebody switched albums on you. “Why Worry” is very pretty – too pretty, for much of it, though it reminds me of Knopfler’s Shangri-La style. “Ride Across the River” starts interestingly with a slight south of the border flavor, and foreshadows some of Knopfler’s imaginative narratives of later years’ solo work. It’s a 1985 tale perfect for 2005. “The Man’s Too Strong” shifts radically again to a strummed-guitar folkie format, with more social philosophizing which continues into “One World,” with a far less compelling musical setting. And too much echo in his vocal. Then it all fizzles to an inglorious seven-minute finish in the title cut’s meandering bit o’ nothing.

Revisiting a re-release is always interesting, to see what perspectives the years bring and what the modern ears actually hear from a piece of history. Sometimes it’s downright embarrassing to hear the massive missteps in something you used to love rise so transparently to the surface. When I listen to Cream, I have to vocalize along with loud ya-ya-s so I can’t hear those dreadful lyrics. But sometimes it’s beautifully clear that what you once loved is indeed music for the ages. In the case of Brothers in Arms, an album I always liked, the revisit was an eye-opener. With every detail etched in highest-resolution 5.1 mix DVD-Audio sound, it is now an album that irritates the hell out of me. Chief culprit: the drums.

It wouldn’t surprise me if this 20th Anniversary Edition became the top audio demo disc again. The 5.1 mix doesn’t take any chances and most of the time you don’t hear that much coming from the rear, but what was once sonically impressive now has more separation and therefore more wow effect. And a minute-10 into “MTV,” cranked up, you will grin again, maybe even laugh.

But there’s one big, big … big problem throughout that drives me crazy. Mark, whatever possessed you to do whatever you did to the drums? They sound like they’re filled with gravel. And water. No snap. No pop. Not a solid, smacking hit on a single snare or tom. Did you fall in love with a compressor saleswoman? What were you, as co-producer of the new mix, thinking of?

I figured they always sounded like that but it never bothered me before because it wasn’t in such a sonically transparent setting. I was blaming the departure of original drummer Pick Withers for the problem; I listened to earlier discs, nice solid if simple drumming, then the album following Brothers, On Every Street, returned to those rhythmic standards, so I figured it was only the Pick-less Brothers in Arms, only drummers Terry Williams and Omar Hakim to blame, or more fairly, the guy in charge who hired them and let that squishy sound take over. But then I finally went back to the original disc and lo and behold – it don’t sound so bad! It wasn’t a 1985 mistake – Knopfler lost his mind in ’05. He took drum sounds that were kind of airy anyway and pushed them over the edge. I think something additional was applied; I don’t think they showed up this way simply because of the surround sound context. They sound the same on the re-released CD stereo mix. Only in “Your Latest Trick” do the drums take on any different timbre and approach, and that in itself seems pretty odd.

Otherwise … in “Walk of Life,” the cheesy keyboards are nicely separated out and the vocals are much more clear and appealing in the 5.1 than in the stereo mix, and though it’s all still front-heavy a little tambourine comes peeking out behind you, left and right. “Why Worry” and “One World” feature a big, big voice, and “The Man’s Too Strong” has some really big piano chords that shake the walls. That’s fun. Okay, album’s almost done, title cut … what’s this? there! a noise from the rear! at last! An apocalyptic keyboard drone, that stays mostly on the right. Where, oh where, is the Sir George Martin of 5.1, and if you find him will you please give him Mr. Knopfler’s phone number. With the way he messed with this classic, I’d say he’s in dire straits.

Extra Features
Well, who needs extras when you’re re-releasing Fort Knox? So there are none, short of a self-promotional “appreciation.” I would’ve appreciated leaving the damn drums alone.

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