Frontiers Records (Release Date 10.07.20)
Mark Spiro is probably best known as one of those outside collaborators who in the late eighties and early nineties sprinkled their songwriting gold dust to give the added touches that turned potential singles into actual hits. In the melodic rock field Giant and Bad English were perhaps his best known ‘clients’, though his biggest hit came with Julian Lennon’s ‘Saltwater’.
However from 1994 to 2012 onwards he also made a series of albums under his own steam, and after a quiet period Frontiers have unleashed this lavish 3CD overview of his career, including a whole CD of unreleased rarities.
Even better, the inlay booklet is a mini illustrated autobiography, giving direct insight into his background, family, collaborations, writing style and the less savoury side of the business. However in addition to basic proofing errors (‘Lou Graham’ of Foreigner!) there are no details of which songs come from which album, for those who might want to investigate further, which to me is a basic omission.
On the assumption the two CDs of previously released material are in rough chronological order, the first is far more in the AOR style he is most noted for. ‘All The Love We Kill’ is a grower with its insidious chorus, while ‘Wind On The Water’ and ‘My Devotion’ are both superb, though eclipsed by ‘Better With A Broken Heart’ with a massive chorus and a great guitar solo that presumably comes from co-writer Michael Thompson.
The writing style is familiar, but in his solo hands these songs have a less bombastic style and a more laid-back production, even though the fact he uses largely programmed instruments other than the lead guitar can give them more of a demo feel.
His voice is more than adequate if perhaps not as distinct as some of his collaborators, while on some of the rockier numbers such as ‘Vendetta’ he even sounds rather like modern-era Ian Gillan. A recurring lyrical theme is also the love of the sea and nature from his days growing up in Seattle, and the quite excellent ‘Valdez’ has the same environmental message as the aforementioned ‘Saltwater’.
The sparse arrangement of ‘Midwestern Skies’ brings out his talents as a songwriter, as does his ability to rhyme ‘archipelago’ and ’simpatico’ on ‘The Rain Came Tumblin’ Down’. Added to his own versions of ‘Through My Eyes’ and ‘Don’t Leave Me In Love’, both subsequently covered on later albums by Giant, a brilliant first CD is only spoiled by the nagging feeling that the songs begin to sound a bit samey.
The second CD opens with ‘I’ll Be There’, simply an outstanding AOR anthem as you might expect from the fact it was penned by not one, but two of those Midas songwriters in Spiro and Jim Vallance.
However, as it progresses the production and writing style reflect changing musical trends. There are fewer searing guitar solos and songs like ‘Its A Beautiful Life’ life are in more personal singer/songwriter territory along with quirkier numbers like the catchy ‘The Fisherman 3’.
‘Monster’ and ‘Between The Raindrops’ have a distinct Beatles influence, but by the time ‘Beautiful Mistake’ and’ Love Don’t Come Around Here’ boast loops and other devices, he has moved far away from traditional melodic rock.
The third CD of previously unreleased rarities is also frustratingly shoddy – there are no details of when they were written or what projects they may have been intended for, while the recording levels vary hugely; not the best thing to play late at night when wondering the volume is too loud for the neighbours!
All but one of the tracks were co-written with one of a trio of noted AOR guitarists in Michael Thompson, Tim Pierce and Dann Huff. The latter include two of the best in the beautiful melodies of ‘Broken Home’ and robustly funky ‘Feels Like’, inviting speculation if they were ever intended for a Giant project.
There are a number of good songs that deserve to be heard – notably ‘Cry Me A River’ and ’24 Hours A Day’, though the way they retread familiar ground on the first two CD’s, but with even more of a demo nature, mean they will primarily appeal to the already converted.
Those fans will find plenty of highlights, but as a primer aimed at newcomers of the career of one of melodic rock’s great songwriters, this collection could have been so much better curated. *** 3/4
Review by Andy Nathan
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