Getting past the booklet that accompanies Rob Dickinson's debut solo disc is a challenge, but the cringe-and-giggle-inducing cover imageof the former Catherine Wheel singer releasing seahorses back, umm, into the wildin no way reveals what's inside. It's been five years since his once-popular old band fizzled into obscurity, but Dickinson seems to have sonically rewound to 1998, after Catherine Wheel's egregiously ignored concept album Adam And Eve, but before its directionless swansong, Wishville.
The intervening years didn't seem to change Dickinson at all: His breathy voice and songwriting stylebombastic, occasionally mainstream, and often brilliantremain fully intact. Catherine Wheel fans, an increasingly exclusive group, should find nothing to argue with. In fact, Fresh Wine For The Horses feels like it might have started as another CW album; the band's final lineup even plays on the album's heaviest tracks: "The Storm" gets slinky and rocking, and while it never reaches "Black Metallic"-like heights, it still feels pleasantly unforced. "Towering And Flowering," the big finale, goes down and dirty, too.
But Fresh Wine actually succeeds mostly when Dickinson indulges himself with simplicity and directness: "My Name Is Love" and "Intelligent People" aim way too squarely, but their potentially ham-handed sentiments ("You've just gotta smile / And hang out with intelligent people") somehow manage to work in the context of unabashedly rock-centric (but never dumbed-down) arrangements. Even "Bathe Away" manages to turn a nothing lyric ("There's nothing sweet / There's nothing sweet to eat") into some kind of sexy, dangerous moment. Elsewhere, he finds even stronger footing, turning what might've been serviceable songs into near-great ones: "Don't Change" and a heartfelt cover of Warren Zevon's "Mutineer" (delivered once in its entirety, and again as a choir-fueled hidden coda) hit peaks on par with Dickinson's finest Catherine Wheel moments. It might take some effort to dig past that intolerable photo ("Cover Concept by Rob Dickinson," by the way), but there's something worth finding behind it.