Last week’s installment in our Hall & Oates Guide got big love from Stereogum and Entertainment Weekly, among others, forcing me to further question my belief that the blogosphere is almost entirely populated by unrepentant rock snobs. (And re-examine my ability to recognize ironic praise.) Will our star duo be so lucky a second time?
I sort of doubt it, actually. True, Part Two is where they released their biggest hits, but it’s also — as we will shortly see — when they lost their creative spark. As a devout, longtime Hall & Oates apologist, that’s a sad and difficult truth for me to admit, but…well, it’s the truth nonetheless.
And away we go:
Private Eyes (1981)
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While Private Eyes isn’t my favorite Hall & Oates album, I have to admit that it’s pretty clearly their best. Forget about the hits — although the title track and “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” are good songs and great singles, their impact has been dulled by decades of oversaturation. And besides, Private Eyes is deep with solid tracks. “Head Above Water” (download) and “Mano A Mano” (download) may not have been hits, but they perfectly sum up their sound and perspective in the ’80s. Musically speaking, they were textbook, old-school pop and soul filtered through modern rock and new wave — something they deliberately underscored by covering “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” on Voices — and the same can be said for the lyrics. Though on the surface, many of Hall & Oates’ hits might seem to be about nothing more than boys and girls, there’s an undercurrent of uniquely modern themes — alienation, paranoia, dissatisfaction with consumer culture — running throughout everything they did post-1980. The final effect is sort of like Smokey Robinson with a keytar and a skinny tie (and on a therapist’s couch).
Of course, the beauty of Top 40 radio is that it really doesn’t matter what you’re really singing about; it’s going to be the theme song to eighth-grade formals anyway, and as dark in spirit as songs like “Private Eyes” might be, they have a good beat and you can dance to them. End result: Smash hit after smash hit. And Hall & Oates — who had released an album of new material every year since 1972 — showed no signs of slowing down.
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At least not until H2O came out. The album was another sales monster, spinning off the gigantic hit “Maneater” (which is, incidentally, the song that made me hate Hall & Oates until I was old enough to know better) and the less-played-but-infinitely-better “One on One” (download), which is quite possibly the greatest tour ballad ever written. If you don’t believe me, listen to it again, and tell me if you could say “I’m horny and sick of being on the road” with that kind of poetry.
It was becoming apparent, though, that the duo — or Hall, anyway — was getting restless. An extremely prolific songwriter and one of the most gifted vocalists of the modern era, Hall — at least early in his career — seemed hellbent on proving himself as a Serious Songwriter; barring that, he at least wanted to demonstrate the breadth of his musical palette. With the benefit of twenty-plus years of hindsight, it’s easy to say most songwriters would kill to have written even one of Hall & Oates’ hits; but when you’re young and everything you’re touching seems to turn to gold (and critics everywhere are calling you a lightweight), a little hubris is perhaps to be expected.
I’m overstating things a bit. Choosing to cover Mike Oldfield’s “Family Man” (download) did send a signal, albeit a rather subtle one; elsewhere on the album, even if the songs were a little more cynical (or, as some critics suggested, borderline misogynistic), they still hewed pretty closely to the platinum formula, and the mostly unfortunate “Italian Girls” proved their sense of humor was still more-or-less intact.
Even the following year, when Hall & Oates released their version of the dreaded “best of, part one” album, their hot streak showed no signs of slowing. Though Rock ‘n’ Soul, pt. 1: Greatest Hits is a compilation, and therefore has no place here, it’s noteworthy for including one of the duo’s best-ever songs, “Say It Isn’t So” (download). Rock ‘n’ Soul included two new songs — “Say” and the sphincter-tighteningly dumb “Adult Education” — and both of them were Top 40 hits. Even their leftovers were cresting the charts.
When you’re at the top, of course, there’s only one place to go.
Big Bam Boom (1984)
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In a lot of ways, Big Bam Boom is the perfect mid-’80s album. It’s got a stupid title, for one thing; for another, each song has enough production for five or six full-length records. Musicologists will recognize Bob Clearmountain’s messy handprints all over Boom, but what a lot of people don’t know is that Arthur Baker was also somehow roped into the project. A lot of albums sounded this machine-driven after Boom came out, which is not to say it was influential at all; it’s more that Hall & Oates — for the last time in their career — had their fingers firmly on the pulse of modern music. It’s likely they believed they were moving soul fully into the ’80s, and maybe, in a way, they were. Mostly, though, they were just making an unnecessary racket.
And “unnecessary” is really the right word: Though Big Bam Boom is lighter on decent material than anything they’d released since X-Static, it also contains some great songs that would have been better served with a different, less claustrophobic approach. “Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid” (download) and “Bank on Your Love” (download), in particular, deserve better than they got.
As I mentioned before, Big Bam Boom is a poorly produced album, but no more or less poorly than anything else on the radio in 1984, so it’s doubtful that its relative lack of commercial success had anything to do with that. More likely, familiarity had simply bred contempt. I mean, I hated Hall & Oates in 1984. Chances are, you did too — or you would have.
Changing public tastes, as it turned out, dovetailed with the duo’s slow dissolution. They never broke up, exactly, and were never totally abandoned by their base; in fact, 1985’s Live at the Apollo, recorded with David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks, was well-received and helped spark a wave of ’60s revivalism. They just took a break, at what was probably the exact right time. Hall resurfaced in 1986 with his second solo album, the Dave Stewart-produced Three Hearts in the Happy Ending Machine, which spun off the terrific single “Dreamtime” (download). And Oates? Well, he produced a little — most notably Icehouse’s 1988 hit “Electric Blue” — and did a lot of mountain biking.
Ooh Yeah! (1988)
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What a difference four years makes. When Big Bam Boom came out, Hall & Oates were still members of the pop vanguard; for 1988’s ooh yeah!, they were promoted as heritage comeback artists. Perception, in this case, counted for a lot — though nothing on the album was at all out of step with current styles, and songs like “I’m in Pieces” (download) and especially “Keep On Pushin’ Love” (download) stand comfortably alongside their best material — the record was pretty much dead on arrival. “Missed Opportunity” and “Everything Your Heart Desires” were hitlike singles, but they didn’t translate to sales, and they certainly didn’t exert the sort of massive Top 40 influence Hall & Oates were accustomed to. Just one year later, they’d be reduced to recording a cover of “Love Train” for the godawful Earth Girls Are Easy. Listen to the 12″ mix (download) to hear how quickly they went from anticipating trends to chasing them.
Change of Season (1990)
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Change of Season was promoted as Hall & Oates’ return to their “acoustic” roots — their 1991 tour was even named “Acoustic Power” — but that’s more than a little misleading. Though there are certainly plenty of acoustic guitars here, Season is propped up with a plethora of various synths and other production trinkets. It’s about as “unplugged” as anything calling itself “unplugged” in 1990; don’t forget, this was the year of MTV Unplugged, and the year after Jon Bon Jovie and Richie Sambora did “Wanted Dead or Alive” at the MTV Music Awards and turned seemingly every hair-metal artist into an acoustic cowboy.
Speaking of Jon Bon, he co-wrote a song here, the quasi-hit (and decidedly un-acoustic) “So Close”; not coincidentally, this song basically sums up what’s wrong with Change of Season (which is, incidentally, my favorite Hall & Oates album) — there’s just too much outside material. It isn’t bad outside material — I think “Heavy Rain” (download), a Dave Stewart cover, is one of their finest recordings — but still, it’s hard not to find fault when you know they’re perfectly capable of writing great songs of their own.
As I said, this is my favorite Hall & Oates album, which might seem contradictory — but again, it isn’t that the songs are bad, just that they point the way toward a troubling trend. Even worse, a lot of these songs aren’t really Hall & Oates so much as Hall featuring Oates, or, far less often, the other way around. I have no idea whether their relationship was ever truly collaborative or creatively equal, but for a long time, it at least seemed to be. Starting with Change of Season, Hall began dominating Hall & Oates albums even more than he always had. Again, I have no idea why this happened; I don’t know whether Hall is an egomaniac, or Oates is really as ambivalent toward his career as he seems, or both. It doesn’t matter. Oates has always been the less appreciated of the two, but as albums like Season point out, his contributions run a lot deeper than just a name on the cover. He isn’t the extraordinary singer that Hall is, but he’s arguably the more effortlessly and authentically soulful of the two. It’s here that Hall began his irritating over-reliance on a small bag of R&B vocal tics, and Oates’ frequent absence speaks louder than words.
Marigold Sky (1997)
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After Change of Season’s disappointing commercial performance, Hall & Oates spent a few years being shuffled around and enduring release delays at Arista before finally taking another break. When they regrouped for Marigold Sky, it was at the indie level; the now-defunct Push Records (of which Hall and Oates were part owners) used BMG’s distribution to get the album into stores. This muted any impact Sky could have had, as you might expect; though “Promise Ain’t Enough” was a respectable performer at AC stations, the duo was essentially carrying its own water at this point.
It’s a decent album, even if it is a little confused-sounding. The tradition of Hall featuring Oates and vice versa continues here, meaning that a large chunk of the record sounds like a Hall solo album. That wouldn’t be so bad if Hall’s solo albums were still as well-made as Sacred Songs or Three Hearts in the Happy Ending Machine, but in the years since those releases, Hall had altered course, releasing a pair of sodden albums (1993’s Soul Alone and 1996’s Can’t Stop Dreaming) that found him either recycling beats from old new jack soul records, or mooning his way through embarrassing drivel like Soul Alone’s “Wildfire” (download).
Most of the rest of Marigold Sky is better than that, if not up to par with their earlier albums — “The Sky is Falling” (download) is a well-written, if toothless, update on the Hall & Oates sound. Unfortunately, Oates is almost a non-factor here; the album’s best song and closing track, “War of Words” (download), is his only lead vocal.
This new dynamic ran deeper than the studio, too. When I saw Hall & Oates on their 1991 tour, the program was a surprisingly even balance between Hall and Oates — they each even had a solo set — but on the Marigold junket (and subsequent tours), Oates’ participation lived down to the long-running industry joke about him being the highest-paid background vocalist in the business.
Do It For Love (2003)
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Do It For Love was originally recorded for Sony; after Marigold Sky, Hall & Oates signed a deal with the label — which was being run by their old manager, Tommy Mottola — that lasted several years and never went anywhere. It’s difficult to understand what Sony wanted that Hall & Oates weren’t giving them; Love is a very commercial, very safe-sounding album, an album that includes at least one ready-made hit in the title track (download), along with a lot of peppy, uptempo AC fare like “Life’s Too Short” (download). Between the generally positive reviews Love received and the Hall & Oates episode of Behind the Music that ran roughly concurrent with its release, they were able to mount a medium-sized comeback.
Far be it from me to rain on anyone’s parade, but I really hate Do It For Love. Not only because the songs mostly run the gamut from so-so to jaw-droppingly awful (like “Getaway Car,” which contains this immortal refrain: “We can run away/Baby come as you are/You can look at my heart/As your Getaway Car/We can drive all night/It’ll be alright/Love can take us so far in my Getaway Car”). Not only because the album is larded with outside material, including a pointless cover of the New Radicals’ “Someday We’ll Know.” But also, and mainly, because there’s hardly any John Oates on it. Really — on quite a few tracks, Oates doesn’t even perform.
If I was a more cynical person, I might imagine that this whole Hall & Oates comeback thing was prompted by Hall’s realization that he can’t make nearly as much money on his own.
Our Kind of Soul (2004)
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And here, unfortunately, is where the story ends, at least for now. It would be nice to conclude this Guide on a high note, but, well…here’s what I wrote in this space when Our Kind of Soul was released:
Daryl Motherfucking Hall and John Goddamn Oates put out their covers album this week, optimistically titled Our Kind of Soul. Never mind that soul isn’t something they’ve even bothered to approximate since their 1985 Philly gig with Ruffin & Kendricks. Never mind that their 1997 “comeback” album was distressingly high on modern (read: awful) R&B gloss, and its wretched followup, last year’s Do It For Love, had nothing whatsoever to do with anyone’s soul. Even as he’s settled gracelessly into bloated, puffy-faced middle age, Hall has remained a thousand times more prolific than his peers. Oates, even if he’d obviously rather be riding a mountain bike somewhere, is still an underrated vocalist. Up ’til now, it hasn’t been unreasonable to think these two had one more good album left in them. Not anymore. Who wants to spend $15 to hear Hall & Oates versions of “Ooh Child” (download) or “I Can Dream About You” (download)?
That about sums up how I feel about Soul, and Hall & Oates’ current career prospects in general, even with the benefit of a year’s hindsight. I suppose I haven’t entirely given up hope that they’ve got something else to say, but I know the odds are strong that I’ll have to content myself with their old stuff from now on.
Don’t let that reinforce your probably-negative opinion of Hall & Oates, though; for quite awhile, they wrote and recorded some phenomenally strong material. Those records sound unfortunately dated now, but that doesn’t take away from how well-made they are at their core. Eventually, I’ll make a Bootleg City post out of my 1991 Acoustic Power recordings. But for now, download…enjoy…and meet me back here in Idiot’s Guideland next Tuesday for Part One of our look at the collected works of Nick Lowe!