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The Postal Project: "Teaser and the Firecat" by Cat Stevens
By Gary Wien
originally published: 03/01/2021
A few years ago, my long-time postal worker retired. Knowing that I wrote about music and had an online radio station, he surprised me one day by giving me a few hundred albums from his vinyl collection. It was a mix of releases from the late sixties, seventies, and early eighties - generally classic rock and folk music. After Hurricane Sandy he was downsizing and I was one to benefit.
This column starts the beginning of what I’m calling "The Postal Project" - a live take on each album as I play it for the first time while burning the album to mp3s on my MAC. Nearly all of the artists in the collection are names familiar to me, but many of the albums are long out of print. My goal is to see if I can discover lost tracks - songs that I would have played on the radio if I had been a disc jockey at the time.
To start the series, I put on Teaser and the Firecat by Cat Stevens. This album was released in 1971 as the followup to his brilliant Tea for the Tillerman release from the year before. It was a period of time in which some of the most memorable songs from Cat Stevens were being created. On this album, Cat’s message and hope for peace is apparent throughout the record.
“The Wind” begins the album. This is a soft, beautiful and rather short poem based song. Not a throwaway, but not very memorable either. The second song, however, contains rather interesting music to go along with simplistic lyrics. Entitled “Ruby Love,” the song includes the bouzouki instrument, which gives it a bit of a world music flair. Unfortunately, the lyrics hold much to be desired. Lines like “you’ll be my love / you’ll be my sky above” contain the simple imagery one might expect from Cat Stevens, but are more reminiscent of something he might have written as a teenager than his songs that have endured the decades.
The third track, “If I Laugh,” is one that grabs me from the very start. This is the sort of song I’m hoping to discover in this series. It appears to be a love song in a period of war with the protagonist seemingly forgetting who he was pre-wartime and wishing the two had made in a different time. Cat’s vocal strengths are on display here, showcasing cries for help, pain, and longing - all over a wonderful acoustic guitar backdrop. “If I laugh just a little bit / maybe I can forget the chance / that I didn’t have to know you / and live in peace, in peace.”
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Up next is “Changes IV” - an adventurous song that bridges the worlds of rock and roll and singer-songwriter sounds. The chorus: “And we all know it’s better yesterday has past / now let’s all start the living / for the one that’s going to last” quickly becomes an earworm. It sort of reminds me of the classic sixties anthem, “Get Together,” by The Youngbloods.
The first ballad, “How Can I Tell You,” follows. This is the type of song which would be a complete throwaway without the blend of extraordinary vocals and beautiful guitar work by Cat. The lyrics are incredibly simple: “How can I tell you that I love you / I love you, but I can’t think of the right words to say / I long to tell you, that I’m always thinking of you” but Cat’s voice turns it into a rather nice song.
Side two begins with “Tuesday’s Dead,” a song I think I’ve heard once or twice before. This is an upbeat track that I could see DJs playing on an FM station at the time. It’s not a hit song by any means, but one of those “deep tracks” that lived on FM in the 60s and 70s. “Who - where do you go when you don’t want no one to know / whoah - told tomorrow - Tuesday’s dead.” Honestly, I have no idea what this song is supposed to mean, but I dig it. There’s a nice Hammond organ playing on this one, which gives it a different flavor from most of the album.
The second track on side two is Cat’s take on the traditional, “Morning Is Broken” piece. With Cat’s help, the song turns into a beautiful dream like tune. It’s here where Cat is at his best - adding a sense of magic and spiritualism to beautiful songs with melodies that don’t always follow a straight line. The jigs and jags (subtle piano riffs and stuff) add layers to the song. “Morning has broken / like the first morning / blackbird has spoken / like the first bird / pause for the singing / pause for the morning / pause for the springing / fresh from the word”
“Bitter Blue” follows and I’m digging the music from the start. Cat comes in with a bit of a gravelly vocal on what sounds closer to a full band track than anything else on the album. “Yes I’ve been moving for a long time / but only up and down / I gave my last hope to you / don’t hand it back to me bitter blue”
It’s not the greatest track, but memorable. It's definitely one of those nuggets I was hoping to find in this series. I could see it getting airplay back in the day, but it probably got lost due to the success of the next two tracks. The chorus might have reminded DJs too much of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” as well.
The next two tracks are among the best in Cat Steven’s catalogue. The first is “Moonshadow” - a simply wonderful song that I’ve heard hundreds of times on the radio and it still sounds fresh. It’s an inspiring song about finding the best in any situation - even if you’re losing your hands, eyes, legs, or ability to speak. “And if I ever lose my legs / I won’t moan and I won’t beg / oh if I ever lose my legs / oh if… I won’t have to walk no more.”
The album’s closing track is its standout song, “Peace Train.” This is one of his songs that has an opening riff which is instantly recognizable. It’s a song that we sadly will likely always need and one that sounds great fifty years after its release. If Cat Stevens had never written another song, this track would have made him a legend by itself.
“Now I’ve been smiling lately / thinking about the good things to come / and I believe it could be / something good has begun / oh peace train sounding louder / glide on the peace train / come on now peace train”
I think the theme of war is found throughout the album, which makes it special that Cat chooses to end with a song about peace and hope. Even while he was battling so many thoughts about war, he still held out hope. It’s because of songs like “Peace Train” that Cat’s music is near to my heart.
I’m going to try burning a new album with a live review each week. Some will be albums you’ve heard of and some will be ones that time has forgotten. The goal, as mentioned before, is to find those tracks that should have survived but may have been lost in the shuffle. And to give them a second chance...