The Phantom Tollbooth
February 1999 Pick of the Month
Still Burning
Artist: Mike Scott
Label: Chrysalis / Steady Records
Time: 10 tracks, about 40 minutes(UK)/ 14 tracks/59:49

Imported Version

Timing is everything.  Thanks to the current popularity of folks like Enya and those lovely Riverdance high-steppers, "celtic music" is all the rage these days.  It is so big, in fact, that it's now being classified as a musical sub-genre and eager record execs can't sign Celtic sounding artists fast enough to fill their greedy coffers.  Is it not odd then that Mike Scott of The Waterboy's fame has abandoned his former affection for Irish-laden lilts?  At the very least, it was bad timing ("He could've been huge, Bob").  Perhaps, having played a part in bringing Celtic infused music to the cultural foreground over the last decade or so, maybe he's just burned out on the whole thing.  The Waterboys, after all, are dead--but Mike Scott is still standing and Still Burning is his latest illumination. Mike Scott's last album, 1995's Bring 'em All In, was a folksy acoustic guitar-centered album.  For the most part, Still Burning is quite a contrast offering more high energy electric-guitar driven rockers than mellower fare. For old fans of his former band, this album has more in common with the late end of The Waterboy's period, particularly the underrated Dream Harder from 1993.  The fiddles and fairies are sadly absent, but the signature sound is still unmistakably Mike Scott's.

For those unfamiliar with both Scott and The Waterboys, where have you been? It's not too late, and if you can find this import it is as good a place to start as any.  You can expect uncommonly good, high energy rock and roll with influences as far reaching as Van Morrison and Big Country.  Also, like Bill Mallonee of the Vigilantes of Love, Mike Scott's voice is atypical.  With respect to his Scottish heritage, he sounds as if he might have a bit of the leprechaun in him, such is his gutsy yet higher-pitched pixieish trolling. The rest of the sound is fleshed out with electric guitars, drums, bass, and some interesting additions, including horns, pianos, a mellotron, RD500 synths, Hammond, and Wurlitzer organs, a Bellzouki, and something called a rainstick.  There is also some lush orchestration on one track.  The result is a batch of ten songs ranging from the full-throttle rocker that is opener "Questions" all the way to the hymn-ballad hybrid of "Everlasting Arms." There's nary a dull moment in between.

To put it another way, Mike Scott is one of the world's most gifted song writers, and this album is no disappointment,  especially for those who can live with a bit of ambiguity.  Mike Scott's songs are largely about personal redemption and transformation, being open to spiritual change and looking for unconditional love and forgiveness even in the midst of pervading darkness. These songs prove to be no exception, and carry many of his recurring themes. Scott is also an avid reader, and he has been known to thank a diverse range of writers and thinkers in the past as the inspirations for his songs including C.S. Lewis, Sitting Bull, John Lennon, Eileen Caddy, Dion Fortune, Billy Connolly, Mark Helprin, Dr. Seuss, Jimi Hendrix, and Flannery O'Connor. As a result, Scott's lyrics are always literate but rarely opaque. His lyrical gift is rarely found in his directness but rather in his ability to infuse a great deal of mystery into his work, the kind of mystery that leads to speculation, inquisitiveness, and the most pleasant of poetic and pensive pondering. Perhaps the greatest aspect of this gift is the way his poetry and music mix to create a sense of otherworldliness that incites the imagination. Scott possesses a rare and most precious gift among musicians today, the gift of encouraging others to think about the inherent relationship of art, life, and faith.  Yet, in a moment of true lyrical clarity and simple theology, Mike Scott has offered us a hymn to share along life's journeys.
 

The timing is always right for a message like that, and the way Scott delivers it makes it timeless in its appeal-- whether you are a sprightly elf or just a happy human.
 

By Steven S. Baldwin

Import copies can be obtained through www.cduniverse.com

US Version

Good news, fellow Americans! Still Burning is no longer an expensive import.It is finally available in a store near you at a reasonable price and providing more bang for your buck! The U.S. version includes four additional tracks, which together with the other ten contribute to Scott's most rocking album to date. The import version was rocking enough, but the four new songs cut loose so enthusiastically that the album's overall tempo is revved up as a result. The most notable new additions are "King Electric," which appears to be a sequel in both style and content to The Waterboys' "Return of Jimi Hendrix," and "One of Many Rescuers," which uses Arthurian imagery to cast relational woes in a humble light.  "Man on the Mountain" and "Since I found My School" are the other two, and all four new cuts are offered in full throttle mode. The quality of these inclusions is high, making you wonder why they weren't on the original release in the first place. Regardless, here they are (lucky you). Even with these new additions, however, the two biggest stand-outs are still the folky hymn "Everlasting Arms" and "Love Anyway" with its lush rock/orchestral sound, which earned it a place as the closer on the latest Waterboys greatest hits CD.

The only complaint resides in the song order. The new songs appear to be randomly dropped in with the original ten, resulting in some jarring transitions like the one from "Everlasting Arms" to "Since I Found My School." These two songs ought to have been reversed, because "Everlasting Arms" is the perfect song to close the album (IMHO). Nevertheless, you can program them anyway you want, or bravely hit shuffle play. No matter how you play them, here are fourteen songs showcasing Scott at his introspective, inspirational, playful, rocking best.  See the previous review of the import version for more details.

By Steven Stuart Baldwin (10/26/98)
 

 
For more information on The Waterboys and Mike Scott, check out our reviews of
the new Live Adventures of The Waterboys and The Waterboys & Mike Scott's most recent greatest hits collection The Whole of the Moon.
 

Much like when Dylan played 'Judas' in 1966 when he went electric, Mike Scott "betrayed" fans of his band The Waterboys in 1988 when he unplugged to explore folk and Celtic music. Still Burning marks Scott's return to a rockier sound long missed by many fans, but comes across unfortunately as a last ditch effort to win back a wider audience after years of experimentation.
 
Musically, Scott doesn't break any new ground, but he does branch out from his acoustic-based sound of his last solo effort Bring 'em All In. He may have left the 'Big Music' behind with the Eighties, but he still enjoys strings and trumpets when they're called for on songs like "Love Anyway" and "Rare, Precious and Gone."
 
What's even more revealing is the change in Scott's overall outlook. When he first caught public attention he was apt to write about painful break-ups and searching for, but never finding, inner peace. Songs like "All The Things She Gave Me" and "We Will Not Be Lovers" were filled with vengeance, whereas Still Burning's "Love Anyway" boasts of loving despite disappointment:
 
         You made a fool
         out of me today
         I'm breaking the rule
         I love you anyway
 
In the summer of 1998, Scott played at England's premier Christian music festival, Greenbelt, further confusing the theories whether a song like "Everlasting Arms," the album's closer, are about the Lord Jesus. If you are tired of a world filled with "silly love songs" and prefer artists with a healthy dose of sincerity in both their music and their lyrics, you won't be disappointed with Scott's most recent outing. His heart has always been in the right place even though his musical wanderings have sometimes led him astray.
 
By James F. Laverty (1/1/99)