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11 March 2009 @ 08:58 pm
Musical Mac & Cheese : Best of Greatest Hits pt. 1  

The first thing you hear is "bwumbada-bumbbada-bump...bwumbada-bumbada-bump" of Klaus Voorman thumping his bass strings and the ears are instantly drawn into what you are hearing even if you've heard it a billion times before. I clearly recall the 4th grade show and tell period where we were allowed to bring in things to share with our classmates. Somebody brought in the 45 of "You're So Vain" and I was instantly hypnotized by the mysterious music I heard. "Clouds in your coffee"? Nova Scotia? Solar eclipse? Wow, this is amazingly rich stuff. In the age of Anne Murray and Donna Fargo, this seemed unfathomably sophisticated to me, mysterious grown-up stuff. Then I discovered that my uncle had a few of her albums on 8-track and I lusted over whichever album has her in that sweater with the perkies poking through. I'm sure many other 11 year old boys did around that same time.

This album is one of four best of greatest hits albums I've lumped together because they all have songs that make me feel better, songs that take me back to being young (really young), and songs that just feel comfortable. They are also four albums that are perhaps the only albums you need by the artists they represent. I know that all four had a second phase after these albums, but they all did their best work during the period of time reflected in these albums, all four of which were released in either 1975 or 1976. I have a couple more albums by Carly and the America album with "Sister Golden Hair" but, otherwise, I don't think I'm missing very much by not having more.

Of Carly's 'Best Of' about half really excites me, even now, just because it still sounds slightly mysterious to me, like even as an adult I still never quite figured it all out. "That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be" is one of those songs, so perfectly arranged, teetering on the edge of schlocky adult contemporary. The words are so heavy and dark for a '70s radio hit, almost a short story on some family life. Mostly, when I hear it now, I admire it but my mind goes "that's Tony Levin from King Crimson on the bass!".
The song here where it all starts to go wrong for Carly and me is "Mockingbird," a catchy little cover version of the Inez and Charlie Foxx tune. It's where the line into A-O-R is crossed, and it's also way too f*cking happy sounding for my taste. The band is amazing though, with Robbie Robertson on guitar, Dr. John on piano, and Klaus again on bass, but it really ruins the slightly dark mood the first two tunes kind of created. Only "Haven't Got Time for the Pain" is worth waiting for, but I have this theory that if James Taylor hadn't come along and made her all happy and pregnant for a few years there would've been a lot more dark and beautiful songs from Carly.


The Doobie Bros. have a similar fateful meeting. Perhaps they were already well on their way to sucking, but trading Tom Johnston for Michael McDonald was like throwing a cement block on the gas pedal as they were driving towards the cliff. If the Doobie Bros. had broken up and stayed broken up after the humid beauty of "Black Water" there would be no reason to defend their honor. Even this 'Best of' album goes a bit further than I wish it would by including two songs from the first McDonald effort 'Takin' It To the Streets.' A clear black line between these two versions of the band would serve them well even if the two McDonald tunes aren't the worst ones they ever did.

For a bunch of hippie biker types, the Doobie Bros. had a brilliant pop sense. I'm guessing their use of Warner Bros. staff producer Ted Templeman was part of this, since he had been a part of the sunshine pop band Harpers Bizarre. He'd bring the same thing to the Van Halen catalog, creating a similarly unlikely combination of California metal and sixties pop. The first side of the Doobies is like pow-pow-pow with great songs with the lethargic "Takin' It to the Streets" stuck in the middle like a rotten banana in the same bunch of nicely greened fruit. Right between "Long Train Runnin'" and "Listen to the Music" and it just doesn't fit there. I'd have stuck that song and "It Keeps You Runnin'" at the end of the album and let Johnston's and Patrick Simmons' songs breathe a little bit. What isn't usually given to the Doobies is respect given to bands like Grand Funk and Foghat (who also went on to squander it all): the Doobie Bros. were a band that could certainly rock. Proof? Oddly enough "Jesus Is Just Alright" is one. "China Grove" is another. Of the bunch, though, it's probably "Black Water" that I have the deepest emotional attachment to, for the same reasons I love "Jackie Blue." It's just a song that is perfect in every possible way.


America would certainly know about perfect songs, they had about a dozen of them scattered over a number of George Martin produced albums that all started with the letter "H." Sure, Neil Young hated them and refused to shake hands with them when Elliot Roberts signed them to his management company. Could you blame him? They took what Neil did with the 'Harvest' album and ran with it right down to the "H" in the title and, before you know it, people were confused. "You mean ta' tell me that the "Heart of Gold" and "the Horse With No Name's" by two different people?" they'd ask, bewildered by it all. America didn't invent lite rock, Bread did. America just perfected it. They took what Neil did, what the Byrds had done, what the Burritos had done, and just shined it all up and made it into a hit machine formula while Neil escaped to 'On the Beach.' The best of the tunes, like "Sandman" and "Ventura Highway," kind of paved the way for the Eagles, and yet the Eagles would end up with the credit and legend. America should've ended their run with "Sister Golden Hair," sure, but their insipidly bland early '80s stuff isn't well known enough now to really interfere with their legacy. They had mucked that up enough on their own with "Muskrat Love."

I kind of think that the sort of pseudo mysticism of songs like "Horse With No Name" and "Tin Man" are a vital part of what set America apart from, say, Seals & Crofts and Loggins & Messina. They were just a little bit deeper than the rest, and just deep enough to save them from a fate worse than the Starland Vocal Band.


James Taylor, on the other hand, started out with so much potential and just got worse and worse as time went on. The album begins with a 1976 cover of Taylor's earliest work, the song "Something In the Way She Moves," a song that directly inspired George Harrison's "Something." When I watched 'Two Lane Blacktop' last summer I was struck by just how cool James Taylor once was. Dennis Wilson was even cooler and, to me, never lost that coolness (dying young helped!). Taylor, however, just took the weirdest right turn into some family friendly folk pop M-O-R singer that was totally and completely "safe" sounding in every possible way. That doesn't stop songs like "Fire and Rain" and "Carolina In My Mind" from being some kind of ear-candy, but "You've Got a Friend" and "How Sweet It Is" cross the line right into being almost too guilty of pleasures for my taste. I've never felt the need to have any other James Taylor in my collection, and this album teeters on even being included. If I hadn't gotten about 20 or so copies of it in various collections the last few years it probably wouldn't be here. Still, I feel comfortable, a bit assured even, whenever I hear one of Taylor's earlier tunes on the radio. I doubt I would listen to this album all of the way through at any time, but I recognize the need to have it there.

Just knowing the kinds of things that were around the corner for these artists after these collections were released makes me wish I could freeze the moment that I didn't yet know for sure that they would all suck bad in the years to come. If their careers had ended with these albums it would be a hell of a lot easier to defend their inclusion in my record collection, that I can say for sure!
happy sad?: calmmac & cheese!
what is that?: americasimon&taylorbros.