Although critics have been glacially slow to admit it, Mike Batt began his career as one of popular music's great prodigies, and one of the finest melodists and orchestrators that Britain has ever produced. He was only 23 when he began writing, arranging and singing as The Wombles, and although he has rarely been able to deliver the commercial success that his abilities seem to merit, in other hands (such as those of Art Garfunkel, Barbara Dixon, David Essex and, more recently, Katie Melua) his songs have stubbornly troubled the hit parade for over forty years.
This twin-pack brings together two of Batt's idiosyncratic solo projects and will not be for all listeners. Waves looks at first sight like a children's album thanks to its striking cover image of a child sailing the moon, but (while children may enjoy its eclecticism and occasionally light-hearted feel) this album's breadth may surprise some listeners. There is plenty of pop here, including "Portishead Radio" and "The Winds of Change", but there are also ravishing ballads and challenging instrumentals. Certainly it takes in the middle of the road, but only by veering into the hard shoulder on either side.
Six Days in Berlin is a more consistent album: overwhelmingly instrumental and thus only featuring sparing use of Batt's rather saccharine vocals. Here, the orchestral flourishes that are so effective in the title track of Waves are given full rein, with a string orchestra, squalling woodwind, rock band and (strangely enough) accordion each able to play a full part in a six-movement suite that sounds at times like a combination of Stravinsky and Piazolla set to a backbeat. It really is a very strange album, and in terms of Batt's "semi-serious" music is only really surpassed by his sci-fi ballet, Zero Zero.
Batt is very easy to dismiss as a perennial underachiever whose music would have been much more successful had he reined in his stylistic tics and remained a backroom Svengali for other singers. That conceded, however, I've always rather loved these albums and would sincerely recommend them to anyone who was prepared, as I am, to take Batt "warts and all". In between moments of sublime dottiness there are many glimpses of a truly gifted composer at work.
on 4 July 2009
Although I have given Five Stars, I am somewhat mixed with this release. I will explain the Five Stars at the end.
This is a joint release of two albums, both of which I purchased on original release on vinyl. I am delighted - yes delighted - to have "Waves" on CD. When I bought the first album, the needle jumped at a certain place in the track "Portishead Radio". I took the album back to the record store and got a replacement. The needle jumped, the needle jumped, the needle jumped (a little Batt in-joke there - reference "Tobermory's Music Machine") in exactly the same place. I obtained a refund and purchased the album in a different shop. Exactly the same fault so I reckoned it was a pressing error and made do with the jumping track. "Portishead Radio" is one of my all-time favourite Batt tracks so AT LAST I have it without jumps! But that's not the only reason I am delighted. It really is a very, very good album. It starts with the excellent "The Winds Of Change"; one of Batt's best. Here, in it's original form with the brilliant sax break (replaced in Mike's recent "A Songwriter's Tale" by the inferior, in my opinion, guitar break) it is pure joy listening to this track on full volume in my car. The second track is the splendid orchestral title track to the album; "Waves" and the third is the aforementioned up-tempo "Portishead Radio". There is a great diversity in styles in the songs on this album from the almost x-rated "Mona" (it's about a prostitute, you know!) to the latin-american "Buenos Dias, Capitan" (the closest thing to a Wombling Song without being one that Mike has written!) and then to a much more typical Mike Batt composition "Fishing For The Moon". There's more than the usual number of instrumental's on this album but they, too, are varied in style, including the fun "Sierra Tango". There are, though, sufficient good songs not to disappoint.
In his sleeve notes, Mike says the album "is rather too much of a hotch-potch of styles for me to be proud of it as a balanced and well-built album." I have to disagree! I first discovered the brilliant songwriter through the Wombles and bought all their albums. What was so clever about the young writer was his ability to be able to write in so many different styles which led to albums of widely varying styles and that is true, too, of "Waves". My only criticism of "A Songwriter's Tale" was that the tracks were all a little "samey" but that is so untrue of "Waves". Mike does say, in the sleeve notes, that he is "nevertheless proud of it as ... a collection of work" and he deserves to be, too. It has been so good to hear this album again.
Now, on to "Six Days In Berlin". I bought it on vinyl when first released and played it once (maybe twice) and never played it again. Having bought the double CD I played it again. Knowing that I would write a review for Amazon I listened to it through twice to make sure. Once more, I expect I will never play it again! Let's just say it is very experimental! I can see a certain amount in it that would be developed in the future (thinking particularly of "Zero Zero") but it is not an album to which I enjoy listening.
So, if one whole disc of this two disc set is one I doubt I will listen to again, why have I given the pack Five Stars? Well, the price is little more than that of a single album and had "Waves" been released alone and sold for this price it would have had an unreserved Five Stars from me so it would seem unfair to mark it down for extra material!
Like I have said in my review of "Songs Of Love & War" / "Arabesque", I find it a tad irritating that you have to remove the booklet from the box to refer to the tracklisting whilst listening - but that is a fairly minor point.
In conclusion, accepting "Five Days In Berlin" as no more than an interesting glimpse into this period of Mike's creativity, "Waves" is an album worthy of repeated play and earning its own place on the Mike Batt shelf of any CD cabinet. Thank you Mike, and Dramatico, for making this material available to us once again.
on 31 December 2009
I fully agree with the praise my fellow reviewers have lavished on this collection, but personally think the real highlight is "Six Days in Berlin" rather than "Waves".
In many ways "Six Days in Berlin" Mike's equivalent of Vangelis' "Beaubourg" (another album I love). It's a remarkable record: completely instrumental, quirky, dense and uncompromising, it also has a lot to offer fans of Mike Batt the songwriter. The great tunes are here, but hidden away almost playfully. It's an album I loved on LP and I was delighted to see it finally available again.
So this collection features some gorgeous pop writing on "Waves" and an eccentric masterpiece on the other disc. A perfect combination!