Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Daryl Hall & John Oates took seven years off between 1990’s excellent Change Of Season and its lackluster 1997 follow-up, Marigold Sky. It would be another six years until the duo returned with an album of new material, but patient fans were rewarded with two archival live releases during that hiatus. The first of these was Ecstasy On The Edge (2001), recorded on October 30, 1979 at the Rainbow Music Hall in Denver, Colorado, during the tour in support of the X-Static album. It’s nice to hear their touring band of guitarist G.E. Smith, bassist John Siegler, drummer Jerry Marotta and saxophonist Charlie DeChant so early in their time together. They were already a well-oiled rock ‘n soul machine by this time, with Smith’s guitar work especially making its mark on their music and the other musicians injecting life into old & new material. This was no mere group of backing musicians, but instead a living, breathing, rocking band. The sound quality is very good, if a little bit flat, but everything is clear & there’s no distortion or muddy sound like you often hear on older live recordings, especially those which sat in a vault for more than 20 years. Of the 12 songs, 7 come from their two most recent albums (the aforementioned X-Static and the wonderful Along The Red Ledge), while three of their big early hits (“She’s Gone,” “Sara Smile” and “Rich Girl”) also appear along with a version of Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music.” The latter was probably fun for concert-goers but on record it’s a bit drab. Otherwise, the song choice is outstanding (5 of them were “Essential” and 4 were “Notable” in my discussions of the original albums) and I’m very pleased to own this slice of Hall & Oates history, just a year before they became ‘80s superstars.
Fast-forwarding a few years, the generically-titled Greatest Hits Live (2001) captured the group at the peak of its powers in 1982 on the Private Eyes tour. There’s no denying the “greatest hits” part of the title, as every major hit from the two most recent albums (Voices and Private Eyes), along with their early classics, show up in inspired versions. Of the 14 tracks, 11 were “Essential” and 2 were “Notable,” so clearly I’m thrilled with the song selection. The sound is brighter & livelier than Ecstasy On The Edge, and the band (now including bassist Tom “T-Bone” Wolk and drummer Mickey Curry) sounds more confident & muscular than before; they’re tight & polished but they still manage to kick ass on nearly every song. Hall’s voice has always been an expressive instrument, but during this period he inhabited the songs with a swagger that could only come with supreme confidence; he was clearly aware of how good he was. His vocal acrobatics on the show-stopper, “Wait For Me,” have to be heard to be believed. Some might argue that this album shouldn’t be called Greatest Hits Live because a number of huge songs from the next couple of albums hadn’t even been written yet, but it doesn’t matter what the record company decided to call it. Until we get an official release from the H2O or Big Bam Boom tours, this is the definitive Hall & Oates live album.
For their first album in six years, Do It For Love (2003), Hall & Oates recorded a collection of songs that are more instantly memorable than just about anything that appeared on its predecessor. There’s still a reliance on programmed rhythm tracks that makes the record more sterile-sounding than anything they released during their peak years, but the melodies are catchier this time and there’s a brevity that was lacking on Marigold Sky (8 of the 14 songs here are under 4 minutes long). Although it’s not a return to their classic ‘70s & early-‘80s records, their voices are still strong, there’s more of a reliance on acoustic guitars (adding a folk element that’s been missing since their days with Atlantic Records) and three songs were Top 20 Adult Contemporary hits. There’s nothing truly outstanding here but nearly half the songs deserve special mention.
They didn’t take much time to produce a follow-up, and after one listen you can hear that Our Kind Of Soul (2004) was a labor of love. Recorded in about 5 weeks on a small island in The Bahamas, this album features cover versions of 14 soul/R&B songs by The Spinners, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Teddy Pendergrass, The Five Stairsteps and many others, as well as three newly written songs that they felt would complement those classics. Fans got their money’s worth with these 17 tracks over nearly 70 minutes, and the relaxed vibe brings you into their Caribbean mindset. Once again they relied heavily on sequencing & programmed percussion, but their love for these songs shines through even when their versions don’t come close to capturing the soulful brilliance of the originals. Hall also provides a brief paragraph discussing each song, which I found helpful in understanding their reasons for choosing them. I doubt I’ll be revisiting this record very often in the future, but there are six tracks which stood above the others that are worth shining a spotlight on.
Hall & Oates’ most recent album to date is Home For Christmas (2006), their first foray into “holiday music” since their ‘8os version of “Jingle Bell Rock” (which shows up here in an inferior newly recorded version). There’s nothing here that comes close to the utter joy of that single, and even the return of real instruments doesn’t help to improve the mostly lackluster recording. Every year during the Christmas season I love listening to holiday music by artists in various genres. In the 6 or 7 years since I bought Home For Christmas I’ve played it at least half a dozen times, and each time it left me disappointed. Where is their one-of-a-kind combination of rock, pop & soul with clever arrangements, smooth harmonies and Hall’s distinctive lead vocals? Whether it’s the forgettable MOR pop of the title track or the maudlin intro to Oates’ “No Child Should Ever Cry On Christmas,” the album has always seemed like too much of a downer. I understand that not every Christmas song is upbeat, but even a traditional tune like “Oh Holy Night” is a letdown here, with Hall holding back when he should be belting it out. The Band’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight” is such a good song that it’s hard to imagine a bad version, but their approach lacks the uplifting quality of the original. Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” (aka “Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire”), which might be my all-time favorite Christmas song, appears here in a quiet jazz version with Oates taking the lead, but it’s too long and doesn’t distinguish itself from countless other recordings of this tune. I’m happy to say that two songs jumped out at me after revisiting it this past week, so an album I’ve been dismissing for several years finally has some redeeming qualities.
That wraps up my series on the Hall & Oates discography. Other than a seemingly endless stream of compilations, the only noteworthy release I don’t own is the Do What You Want, Be What You Are: The Music Of Hall & Oates 4-CD box set that was released in 2009. After revisiting their discography this past month, I have an even greater appreciation for their music than I did when this series began, so the 16 previously unreleased tracks on that box set might be enough of an incentive for me to seek it out. I hope you’ve enjoyed this in-depth look at their studio & live albums. The average fan will likely be content with a “best of” or “greatest hits” collection, but hopefully I’ve convinced some of my readers that there’s a lot to love beyond the hit singles. I also think that the term “blue eyed soul,” which is often attributed to them, only represents one aspect of what they do, as they comfortably straddle the lines of pop, soul, folk, rock, new wave, R&B, etc. It’s now 8 years since their most recent studio album, and even though they’ll both be in their 70s by the end of this decade and their best & most inspiring work is probably in the rear view mirror, I hope there’s more Hall & Oates music to come.