Sunday, January 07, 2007

.

Yusuf

Stephen Georgiou.
Cat Stevens.
Yusuf Islam.
Cat Stevens was one of my favourite singer/songwriters in the 1970s. His albums Tea for the Tillerman, Teaser and the Firecat, and Catch Bull at Four are among the best of that era. Before he was Cat Stevens, he was Stephen Georgiou, and his Greek heritage shows up in his songs, both in the instrumentation (sometimes using the bouzouki, for example) and in the words (in “Rubylove”, from Teaser and the Firecat, the Cat sings some verses in Greek). Highlights of the Cat Stevens 1970s oeuvre:
  • “First Cut is the Deepest”, from New Masters (OK, technically this one's from the '60s, but the song's been such a hit for Rod Stewart and Sheryl Crow over the years that I had to include it)
  • “Where Do the Children Play?”, from Tea for the Tillerman
  • “Hard Headed Woman”, from Tea for the Tillerman
  • “Wild World”, from Tea for the Tillerman
  • “Father and Son”, from Tea for the Tillerman
  • “Rubylove”, from Teaser and the Firecat
  • “Morning Has Broken”, from Teaser and the Firecat
  • “Moonshadow”, from Teaser and the Firecat
  • “Peace Train”, from Teaser and the Firecat
  • “Sitting”, from Catch Bull at Four
  • “Angelsea”, from Catch Bull at Four
  • “Can't Keep it In”, from Catch Bull at Four
  • “O Caritas”, from Catch Bull at Four
  • “Foreigner Suite”, from Foreigner
  • “The Hurt”, from Foreigner
  • “Oh Very Young”, from Buddha and the Chocolate Box
His last three albums were a bit weak, so I don't include anything from Numbers, Izitso, or Back to Earth in my “favourites” list.

And then Cat Stevens became Yusuf Islam, with his second name change accompanying a conversion to Islamic faith. After his Back to Earth album, Cat Stevens disappeared from the music scene, and Yusuf Islam believed secular music to be out of place in his new world. He did some Islamic music, mostly aimed at children; he got sucked into the controversy over the fatwa against writer Salman Rushdie; he was refused entry into the US in 2004, when his plane was diverted to Bangor, Maine, and he was removed and sent back to the UK for appearing on a no-fly list (US officials later said it was a mistake).

But now he's back to Earth again, with a new recording released in November: An Other Cup, by “Yusuf”. A friend gave it to me for Christmas — an interesting series, an atheist from a Jewish background getting a recording of an Islamic singer as a Christmas gift — and I put it into the player with some skepticism. Would he be like Richie Furay, making a completely secular album after some 28 years? I wasn't really interested in Muslim songs. The titles looked like a mixed bag. Ah, well, I support him anyway, particularly after we wouldn't let him fly to New York. Let's give it a try.

And the result is that it's interesting. Some of the songs seem like the old Cat again. His voice is a little deeper and smoother, with the years, but it's much the same voice that I liked so well. The instrumentation is nice. Many of the songs do have a spiritual angle, but they lean more to the “peace, love, and understanding” side than the overtly Muslim one — Yusuf still knows how to entertain us while getting his message out. And his basic message is much the same as it was in “Peace Train”, 35 years ago.

The three opening songs strike me as the best. “Midday (Avoid City After Dark)” is interesting, with good instrumentation. It's catchy. “Maybe There's a World” reminds me very much of “Moonshadow”. And he's put together a nice medley, “Heaven/Where True Love Goes”, taking a bit from 1973's “Foreigner Suite” and blending it. He does it with a little updating; in the “Foreigner Suite” original he sang:

The moment you walked inside my door
I knew that I need not look no more.
I've seen many other girls before,
Ah, but heaven must have programmed you.
In this version he accentuates the spiritual, rather than the physical, with a change of one word: “girls” becomes “souls” here.

Also interesting is the only cover in the collection, “Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood”, made famous by Nina Simone and by The Animals (and done in an exceptionally hot disco/salsa version by Santa Esmeralda, not to be missed). In contrast to the “angry young man” version by The Animals, Yusuf's rendition is painfully plaintive, even more so than Ms Simone's and Elvis Costello's were — a true plea for direction and understanding.

An interesting collection... but, yes, a mixed bag. I'll listen to it again, but I don't think it'll be one of my favourites. In any case, I'm glad he's back!

1 comment:

Paul said...

I used to have Teaser and the Firecat and Tea for the Tillerman on cassette. I played them over and over again, until they wore out. Oddly, I haven't replaced them on CD.