Review of Refugees of the Heart

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"Dear Bobbie, Great job on the web-site! I was wondering - I've listened to Traffic and Blind Faith for years, and now I'm thinking of collecting some Winwood solo albums. Which should I start with? What is YOUR favorite album?"

As the mailing-list and chatroom administrator for almost six years and webmaster for almost four years, I receive that question more frequently than any except "When will Winwood give a concert in my area?" and "Why isn't the album Go on CD?!?". And yes, most people do start out with a compliment of some sort; perhaps they think that if they butter me up, I'll be more likely to respond; perhaps they're right. :-)

"Dear fan, Thank you for your comment on the web-site. My favorite album is Refugees of the Heart, released in 1990, and especially the song "In the Light of Day". Many people prefer Roll With It, Arc of a Diver, and Back in the High Life and you can't go wrong with those albums, but personally I think you'll find Winwood at his strongest on Refugees. Thank you for writing. I hope this helps, BobbieG"

I've been responding with this for so long that I've almost stopped thinking about it, in the same way I don't think about driving the kids to school or brushing my teeth. But recently it seems that I need to re-connect with some of my more basic thoughts and ideas about Winwood's music, so I've been listening to this album with more attention.

Refugees of the Heart seems to represent a concert-in-miniature, nicely illustrating the parallel structures a well-constructed album and a well-constructed concert take. The album/concert opens with "You'll Keep on Searching", with its eerie, attention-grabbing instrumental intro and its statement of theme. The radio and video hit, "One and Only Man", occupies the center of the set, to reawaken any flagging interest among audience members, The last song of the set, traditionally an 'I-dare-you-not-to-get-out-of-those-seats-and-dance in-fact-I-double-dare-you' song, is "Come Out and Dance", which has the bonus of highlighting the individual band-members playing their instruments and giving time for the introductions to the audience. The encore, "In the Light of Day", is haunting melodically, strong vocally, and conclusive lyrically and thematically. Most of this will be discussed further in the notes on the individual songs.

Examining the sequence of key signatures in any album can prove insightful. If the key signatures of each song progress "up" through the scale, the album will generally be more light-hearted in feel than one that progresses "down". Here the songs are in G-major, C-major, D-minor-7th (although that could reasonably be argued), E-major, C-major again, D-major, A-major, and D-minor. A pattern emerges. The first song in G-major makes a strong statement. The intensity level drops off when the second song drops to C-major but the progression of the third and fourth songs through D and E helps give the fourth song, "I Will Be Here", its strength and sense of resolution. If this album were a concert, here's where the band would take a break. The fifth song drops back to C and also seems to emotionally drop. The sense of excitement increases as the sixth song progresses to D-major, and reaches another peak with the seventh, "Come Out and Dance". in a very strong A-major. The last song in a minor key ushers the audience out, thoughtful and quiet. The dominance of major chords is also what gives the album is strongly optimistic "feel" despite the seriousness of its theme.

So in short, I think the song sequencing is a work of genius.

The album is strongly coherent thematically - a spiritual quest. The actual lyrics are ambiguous and can be interpreted as a search for either religious or relational fulfillment. All of the songs contain questions, from the trivial ("Don't you know the reason grandma smiles at grandpa so?") to the most profound ("Is this all we are?") with one major exception, which we'll get to later. Most questions are answered eventually, and most relate to the theme. The title gives a clue, in a sense - a refugee is escaping something, usually something negative, so how can one be a refugee of the heart? The song "Another Deal Goes Down" expands the concept to something more understandable - "the refugees from a war that was lost in the heart". Ah, refugees from a war whose battleground was the heart; that make more sense. Ambiguous, yes - did the war involve spiritual or human love?

An album can be more than the sum of its parts, as I believe this one is, but still it IS composed of its parts - songs. So let's talk about the individual songs.

"You'll Keep on Searching"
The stage is set and lit; the musicians enter. This song sets the theme of the album. You'll keep on searching and you will find "it", whatever "it" is. One true lover and one true friend - is that one person or two? Is that a person at all, or a spiritual guide of some sort? The reference to the wind ("you'll get your answer on the whispering wind") occurs occasionally in Winwood's lyrics; the "saint/clown" juxtaposition, first seen in Roll With It's "Put On Your Dancing Shoes" recurs here ("laughed with saints and cried with clowns"). This song also sets the mood of the album - dramatic, dominant, strong, and optimistic in its totally major key, its soaring chorus, and its vocal acrobatics. The opening chord is just eerie; in fact, the first time I heard it, I thought either my CD player needed repairing or I had been given a Sting CD by mistake.

"Every Day (Oh Lord)"
Once again we come across the "morning" symbolism used so often in Winwood and Jennings lyrics ("Glad I'm here when morning comes"). This song is also strongly optimistic - "each day is music" - with its assurance that you will find the song to keep singing. The beat is very dominant; some might call it repetitive or monotonous. Bashiri Johnson's background use of chimes serves to break that up and give the song a kind of Eastern spirituality. The song has been called by some a "one chord" song, but the sheet music actually indicates an awesome number of chord changes, rather like some of the later complex Beatles' songs. This very complexity, because the changes are also fairly subtle, may paradoxically cause the perception of sameness or monotony. Although the trademark synth solo, played completely in major chords, attempts to musically resolve the complexity, still the song seems muddled and murky. Not one of my favorite songs.

"One and Only Man"
This is the feel-good song of the album; though released in October, this is a song to be played, loud, in the summer. The lyrics here are not subtle in the slightest: "Here's the program, girl." He never really questions whether she'll buy into it. In fact, she's apparently dating someone else while he's planning children! I mentioned earlier that only one song contains no questions; this is it. The key signature indicated is D-minor-7th, but it could be argued that it's in F-major and just dominated by its relative minor; we'll let the music theorists and philosophers pick that one apart. The thing to remember is that even though it's in a minor key, it doesn't have the "sad" feeling a song in a minor key usually has; it's cheered up, spiced up, by the addition of the 7th. The vocals of this song do serve as an illustration of Winwood's general vocal style. He's not a blues singer these days. The song may be in a minor key, but he sings right over that, primarily singing on the D, A, and C of the chords; it doesn't sound minor when he sings it. The instruments here have great crispness, clarity and strength; not muddled at all. There'll be a little break, and oops, out comes a guitar; little break and oops, out come the drums. The guitar solo is one of the most interesting on the album. And let's not forget - this was a great video.

"I Will Be Here"
Winwood has said in interviews that he always puts one hymn on every album; this one is it for Refugees, highlighted by the organ intro. Lyrically, the mood reminds me of Robbie Robertson's "Broken Arrow", although I can't pinpoint why exactly, perhaps in the utter determination to keep promises. The lyrics almost seem like the flip-side of the previous song, a good-times/bad-times pairing. Again, it's ultimately optimistic even in the questions - "don't you know that love will save us after all?" The verses are very challenging to sing; there's almost no intro, and Winwood leaps right into that high sustained first note ("cry" and "come"). The chorus is challenging for another reason; there's almost no melody there, and it's the changing vocal phrasing which gives it its interest, rather like Paul Carrack singing Squeeze's "Tempted". In fact, Carrack and Winwood are similar in having charismatic, easily recognizable voices and in using every half-tone and quarter-tone they can lay their hands on. Like in the previous song, the instruments are discreet, not murkily mixed; the Hammond organ glissando between the second and third choruses never fails to send a chill up my spine. The drums and the sax are fabulous, just organic. In E-major, this song would be the end of the first "set" if this album were a concert.

"Another Deal Goes Down"
The band is back from its break and the mood is subdued. Winwood sang this in a very stylized manner; that manner unfortunately has the effect of making the lyrics almost unintelligible. That's okay, though, because this seems to me an obligatory PC song designed, for some obscure reason, to lend Winwood some street-credibility. ("Tell me what you're searching for, will you, sister." Puh-lease.) It's the music of this song that redeems it. Firstly, that slide guitar sounds like Joe Walsh even though it's not as crisp as Joe would have played it. Secondly, the key is C-major, but the only time that chord appears is very briefly in the instrumental break. This gives the song its musical tension, its sense of being unresolved. Let's examine this more closely; sing quietly to yourself the first line of the chorus - "one more soul drowns". Got it? Okay, two fat chords are used in this phrase, the fourth (F) on the word "one" and the fifth (G) between the words "more" and "soul". This should resolve to a C; instead the G-7 is played, which does happen to have the C in it of course, but it's a chord in D. And the song ends on a D-5. If the song has ever felt emotionally unfinished to you, that's why. A bold self-assured song, musically, but again not one of my favorites.

"Running On"
A song in a non-complex D-major, thank goodness. I love the almost-shouted chorus and the Hammond organ on this piece. Again we have the over-arching optimism of the lyrics ("and I'll always be feeling it, I won't slow down"), this time matched by the music. "Somewhere in this world, a child is born" - is that the hoped-for kid from "One and Only Man"? The lyrics do have a subtle story-telling progression in places. But what's outstanding on this song is the funky bright guitar, very difficult to do well. Larry Byrom is possibly the most underrated session guitarist today. For enjoyment and education, next time you listen to this, try to listen only to the guitar; quite a revelation. Does it remind you of Niles Rogers in "Freak Out"? Byrom never hits a fret squarely, he just dances all over the neck. Byrom also "plunks" without actually playing the notes during the last minute and a half of the song, again a very difficult technique which involves holding down one set of frets to give the bass notes and that funky little root position in the triad, and then quickly strumming and hammering on the higher notes. I would love to see him do this in concert, as long as I had a set of binoculars or was in row 2.

"Come Out and Dance"
Here comes the brass! Trumpet by Michael Haynes, baritone sax and tenor sax by Jim Horn, sax solo by Randall Bramblett, "additional sax" (whatever that is) by Harvey Thompson. This is a song in Winwood's "roadhouse" series; speed it up a bit, add a pinch of excitement, and what do you get? "Roll With It." I adore the flashes of humor in the lyrics ("I got some moves for you, darling" - who, Winwood? The dance-challenged? Take a look at the "Higher Love" video!) and the self-reference ("baby, this is true romance, take it while you see a chance"). Winwood just let the vocals go loose this time, little evidence of control, just having fun, especially on "Grandma says, Hold me tight and don't let go". The over-the-top drums add to the silly atmosphere, and I mean that in a good way. They've done a very very nice job alternating instruments and filling in the blanks, allowing Winwood time to introduce the band members as they improv. This song just hollers to be played live. Get up and dance! As long as there's a beat I'll hang around!

"In the Light of Day"
The encore of our imaginary concert. I must say that I am astounded that this song is among the top ten favorites of Winwood fans, despite its position on a relatively obscure album. The lyrics attempt to resolve the themes raised previously; it is, in a sense, the sum of all previous songs, lyrically (back-references abound), musically (such as the reappearance of the chimes), and vocally (the soaring chorus). The difference is that these lyrics have no loose ends, he is confident that all will work out well ("I can feel the light inside me"). Vocally, again this song is very challenging. The first couple times I listened to it, even with the lyric-sheet in front of me, I had no clue where to "come in"; it shifts constantly. The appeal of the song may lie mainly in the echo-y vocals; they work against the repetitive bass parts, and all else becomes mere decoration. The sequenced synth is carried through-out in a very Peter-Gabriel-esque manner, but it remains light and abstract; the rhythm section becomes a base for the solos to go on, the foundation, a necessary but not a prominent feature. And the solos are joyous, particularly Winwood on the vibes and Bramblett's musical response on the echo-y sax; what a beautiful pairing! The key is D-minor, ostensibly a sad key signature, but as someone once described it, a thoughtful key. If one was going to listen to only one song from this album, this would be it.

-- Bobbie G, Aug 24, 2000

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I would like to thank my husband Kenny for helping me to decipher some of the more obscure chords.
For complete lyrics, chords, and more, please see the individual song entries in the Song Encyclopedias.
Page created March 2, 2001.
Last updated March 2, 2001.