On Second Thought: China Crisis – Diary Of A Hollow Horse (1989)

Walter Becker is the lesser-known half of Steely Dan, yet has a successful career as a jazz producer which extends from 1981 to present day. Shortly after the breakup of Steely Dan in the 80’s, Becker amazed critics with his behind the boards prowess and speed and facilitating the best out of several up and coming and even some established jazz artist. At the middle of the decade, Becker turned his talents to pop music production. His first such effort was with the English group China Crisis for their 1985 release Flaunt The Imperfection.

In 1989, he reprised his production role on eight of the band’s eleven tracks from their last major label release Diary of a Hollow Horse. The Becker-produced tracks represent the best work of the band to date and were only diminished by the three additional tracks recorded with Producer Mike Thorne. With Becker at the helm, the band saw its biggest UK chart success with Flaunt The Imperfection four years prior and received critical acclaim for that effort.

For Diary of a Hollow Horse, Becker had the English based band flown to Hawaii to work in Becker’s studio with Steely Dan engineer Roger Nichols. The band arrived with cryptic yet lush songs written by singer Gary Daly and guitarist Eddie Lundon. The group also brought new keyboardist Brian McNeill to the session who seemed the thrive in the new environment and encouragement from Becker to develop more complex keyboard passages. The band’s long time rhythm section, comprised of bassist Gazza Johnson and drummer the late Kevin Wilkinson have already proven to Becker their ability to handle complex rhythm passages with ease.

Given the foundation of solid playing and strong songs, the results were excellent, but Becker added a few sparkles of magic to the sessions. On the song “Stranger By Nature,” Becker augmented the band’s sound by effectively using their touring sax player, Martin Green, to carry the main theme. Additionally, former Steely Dan sound man Tim Weston played lead guitar. The impact of these additions was an almost mystic feel to the song.

Weston reprises his guitar role on the song “Sweet Charity in Adoration,” producing an almost Dean Parks-like solo. L.A. session giant Jim Horn provides flutes on the song which matches the song’s uplifting and positive message. Walter Becker picks up his guitar and lays down blues lead parts on the song “Day After Day.” Ironically, this is the only track where the band is almost overwhelmed by the hired L.A. based session players which includes Jim Horn, three backup singers and Robbie Buchanan on keyboards.

The band and Becker redeem themselves with the title track, “Diary Of A Hollow Horse.” The track of longing and need is expertly played with drummer Kevin Wilkinson playing a brush pattern that would make Steve Gadd smile. Walter Becker sits in on synthesizers but the real stars in the song are Brain McNeill on piano, Gary Daley’s pleading vocal and Jim Horn’s earnest tenor sax. Pop music doesn’t get much better than this. Another standout track on the CD is “Singing The Praises Of Finer Things” with its unusual bass driven time signatures and crisp and tasteful guitars.

Unfortunately, the CD did not chart in America and the band found itself without a major label deal and went on to produce just one new album in the 90’s before going on hiatus. It also marked the last studio album with drummer Kevin Wilkinson who went on to drum with the band Squeeze among others, but committed suicide in 1999.

The band has been active in the new century however, touring the U.K. and America in 2013 and is currently recording a new project for 2014 release called Everyone You Know.

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Preston Frazier

Preston Frazier is a bass-playing lawyer living in Chicago. His first Steely Dan exposure was with an eight-track cassette of 'Pretzel Logic.' He can be reached at slangofages@icloud.com; follow him on Twitter: @slangofages. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.

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