Celebrate the Catalog : Hall & Oates

Hall and Oates

When Daryl Hall & John Oates were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame this year – on their first ballot appearance – their detractors, fairly dormant since the end of their heyday, peeped out of their shells. Even given Hall & Oates’ recent reappraisals in the rock press and attention from the music blogosphere, it was still unthinkable to those tykes that a group with as much mass appeal, pop-oriented success would deserve enshrinement, even in an institution that continues to get as much circumspection as the Rock Hall. “Wait – the guys who did ‘Maneater’ are in the Hall of Fame? That ridiculous ‘Kiss On My List’ song? ‘Rich Girl’? What’s the matter, was the guy who did ‘Undercover Angel’ not available for the press?” (Actually, he’s dead, but good joke anyway.)

Because their greatest rise paralleled the expansion of MTV, and their appearances in the Top 10 between 1980 and 1984 was nearly uninterrupted, Hall & Oates have been confused for a mere singles act. Their meteoric ‘80s also caused some folks to overlook that they’d been cracking the charts since the mid-‘70s, and that their work directly before their breakthrough album Voices contains some difficult, experimental and adventurous work. Finally, Hall’s boyish good looks and Oates’ superhuman moustache made many believe they were nothing but production values and pastels.

It’s the singles-act thing that probably misleads most people; as instantly as they remember “You Make My Dreams” or “Private Eyes,” almost no retroactive thought is given to the albums that contained them. But who would consider doing a comprehensive review of Hall & Oates’ albums? It could only be a self-confessed Hall & Oates junkie and introverted musical savant, someone so possessed with their long-playing output that he’s frequently the only one in the room to talk at length about Hall & Oates’ album output, and that’s usually to the wall. A Hall & Oates album fan is a loner among loners, undeserving of much consideration, questionable in his place in society, ruminative and disquietingly obsessive, invited to office functions only because it’d be rude to exclude him, and overdrawn from wearying, half-awake nights ruminating over pop music’s most-forgotten artifacts, the full-length Hall & Oates albums.

You know, someone like me.

I’ve followed Hall & Oates fairly closely since I was a kid. If I was born a year or two later I might have hated them like all my friends did in high school, but I didn’t. There hasn’t been a moment since I first started hearing Hall & Oates that I haven’t defended them – sometimes unnecessarily – and up until the ‘90s there wasn’t an album of theirs I hadn’t heard. Especially in their leaner, late ‘70s years, Hall & Oates were always album artists to me.

So this CTC feature covers all their studio releases – not including their last two, which were a covers record and a Christmas album – which I listened to afresh in sequence earlier this year. That’s 16 Hall & Oates albums ranked and rated. Hearing them again in context made for some revised ratings on my part, some up, some down. And one reassurance that they’ve made one of my favorite albums of all time.

More than anything, I hope this feature convinces you of two things: (a) Daryl Hall & John Oates were versatile, experimental, talented album artists, and (b) Treble really needs to come up with some sort of mental health assessment for its freelancers.

Here we go (clap). Enjoy the feature (clap clap).

Part One: Whole Oats

Whole Oats Hall and Oates albums rankedWhole Oats
(1972; Atlantic)

Whole Oats relies on a delicacy that carries all the signs of not wanting to paint too forceful a character. They’re still wide-eyed kids in golden wonder who you could mix up with other neophytes at the time. Named after the duo’s original, wisely-changed moniker, Whole Oats is a new group trying to see what fits, and in more than one place you can hear direct references to other music happening in 1972: Elton John, Joni Mitchell, early Philly soul like the Delfonics.

Legendary Atlantic staff producer Arif Mardin creditably kept Whole Oats fairly unified, but it’s still their most easy-to-overlook album. Even Hall & Oates felt that their next, 1973’s Abandoned Luncheonette, was their true debut album. Whole Oats merely culled the best songs they had on hand at the moment.

You can only play the urchin once in your career, and Hall & Oates did so here. There’s modest soul running through “I’m Sorry,” “Fall In Philadelphia” and “Lilly (Are You Happy).” Hall’s wild piano playing on “Fall In Philadelphia” is a revelation. But mostly it’s even-handed, thoughtfully arranged reflections on the Pan man-child searching for dockage, except for the curiously barbed yet too-gentle “Lazyman.”

Two Hall ballads are unlike anything he’s done since. “Georgie” is a Faulknerian (I know, but it is) story of teenage romance cut short by a classically Southern Gothic tragedy. The sagely edited details are just enough, including an extrinsic but symbolic accordion. And despite being fragile to the point of disintegration “Waterwheel” is Hall & Oates’ most beautiful song, a tender account of a rear-window boyhood that makes as strong an emotional connection as anything they did. The album slows down too much in its second half, but in all Whole Oats is a sensitively generous first step.

Rating: 6.6 out of 10

Hall and oates best albums Abandoned LuncheonetteAbandoned Luncheonette
(1973; Atlantic)

Abandoned Luncheonette was their true arrival and the favorite of many in the H&O throng. Hall’s voice has the confident spring he’s now known for, and Oates is every step his equal. There’s better camaraderie, the solvent being H&O’s unpredictable tandem vocals and producer Arif Mardin’s even-handedness.

What Abandoned Luncheonette displays in preciousness is compensated for by a natural cohesion. “Had I Known You Better Then” and “Las Vegas Turnaround” are saved from over-cuddly-ness by Daryl & John’s floating harmonies. Oates’ “I’m Just A Kid (Don’t Make Me Feel Like A Man)” pairs a double-edged rom-com starring a challenged pickup artist with soft touch.

Hall & Oates’ first moment of transcendence was “She’s Gone,” one of the seventies’ best breakup songs. The lyrics are oft overlooked, with compelling swatches of urban tedium and trying to maintain cool realism while taking it in the gut. Every punch lands — the contrasting vocals, the old-school Philly arrangement, even the hilarious chromatic build-up to Hall’s upper-register howl that’s H&O’s own “Won’t Get Fooled Again” moment.

Hall’s title track is an ambitious time-traveling portrait of a now-settled couple at mortality’s foyer. “Abandoned Luncheonette” moves from Abbey Road pop to big band to soul gospel in three strokes. Hall’s empathy and detail makes one wonder why he didn’t do more third-person character studies. The panorama is even more appreciable when you realize he wraps it up in four minutes.

Daryl and John were so confident that they even pulled off comedy gold with the closing “Everytime I Look At You.” The seven-minute marathon starts in hard funk mode, moves to slow-burn rock, fake-resolves in pop gospel, then speeds up and ends as a banjo-violin bluegrass jam. It’s a good elbow jab at the seemingly random pomp of progressive rock musicians at the time, or at least it sounds like a joke until you hear what came next.

Rating: 8.4 out of 10

Hall and Oates best albums ranked War BabiesWar Babies
(1974; Atlantic)

Then this happened. War Babies is cosmically disordered — a jolt of noise, paranoia and expanse, hurtling headlong into experimentalism like producer Todd Rundgren’s then-recent albums A Wizard, A True Star and Todd. Although H&O weren’t as determined to escape their pop pedigree as much as Todd was, War Babies still got them kicked off Atlantic Records. It’s practically a Hall solo album. Oates sings lead on the opener, then ducks out until a Billy Shears-like cameo on the last song. Hall’s songwriting ranks with his wildest, and when he’s paired with Rundgren’s over-venturesome production style, someone’s gonna lose an eye.

War Babies begins in lurching self-assessment, with back-to-back numbers on the identity crisis of fame (“Is It A Star,” “Beanie G. and the Rose Tattoo”). “You’re Much Too Soon” launches Hall’s lothario persona in comically simplistic ways (“I love you/But I don’t love you”), and “70’s Scenario” is a eulogy for the boundlessness of the ‘60s and the TV dinner existence of the titular decade.

The schizoid second half of the album somehow works. “War Baby, Son Of Zorro” describes the consumerist chaos of the Commie ‘50s in nonsense phrases (“Water ice, sleeveless fights, despot, yes I know/Angel eyes, Simoniz, yes I know”), but least Rundgren’s Jackson Pollack sound effects seem appropriate. “I’m Watching You (A Mutant Romance)” pairs futuristic voyeurism with music that jerks between ballad and rough rock stomp. “Screaming Through December” and “Johnny Gore and the ‘C’ Eaters” are the oddest couple of songs H&O ever put together, taking on mass groups not in control of their own destinies and weirdly self-destructive (“Faustus ate glass for an appetizer and bled all over his synthesizer”).

If nothing else, War Babies should retire the notion that Hall & Oates were mere commercialists. They were listening close to what was going on around them and seeking ways to funnel it. That noble mission doesn’t totally make up for the mess of War Babies, but I give points for chutzpah here.

Rating: 6.2 out of 10

Hall and oates best albums Daryl Hall and John OatesDaryl Hall & John Oates
(1975; RCA Victor)

RCA signed Hall & Oates in 1975, presumably having it known they would not entertain any War Babies shenanigans from anybody in their camp except whoever did their makeup on the cover. Their eponymous fourth album is humble in a nearly apologetic way, following the form of mid-’70s albums from pop artists whose labels were trying to figure out just how much to invest in them. DH&JO is stripped down to its most essential production elements by producer Chris Bond. It’s more intimate than War Babies but more modernized than Abandoned Luncheonette.

The first half of the album (by the way, H&O toyed with the concept of album sides as often as anyone – more on that later) fully visits their updated blue-eyed soul. “Sara Smile” was their first hit, and though you can measure its carefulness it’s a smooth and genuine romantic gesture with unexpectedly complex chord transitions giving it edge. “Nothing At All” is even better, with Hall’s crooning about an anticlimactic ending over drummer Jim Gordon’s quietly spastic snare rattling. Oates’ “Camellia” and “Alone Too Long” fit in well, but they don’t hint at the surprises he’d soon pull off.

Side Two, as they used to call it, has more of a steely rock feel, but again it’s not as dramatic a change as they’d eventually make. “Gino (The Manager),” a backhanded tribute to H&O’s then-showrunner Tommy Mottola, is driven by clavinet, Italian broadsides and a predictable but useful chorus (“Gi-no, NO, no-NO, no-NO, no-NO, no-NO!”). “Ennui On the Mountain” is a comic fantasy in which Hall pokes fun at the notion of the pop star as messiah (“What we need is a mountain in Montana/A thousand acre world for the roadies and the girls”). It’s a refreshing moment of humor in the midst of the decade that elevated every celebrity to divine status. The Silver Album was their lowest-key record excepting Whole Oats, and though it feels like a cautious reset it offers a lot to look forward to.

Rating: 7.0 out of 10

Part Two: Bigger Than Both of Us

Hall and Oates best albums bigger than both of usBigger Than Both Of Us
(1976; RCA)

The first single from Bigger Than Both Of Us was “Do What You Want, Be What You Are,” a lazy, prickly R&B waltz that hinted at new brashness. Hall croons for the cause of doing your thing: “Do you believe in hot cars, leather bars, movie stars… Payin’ dues in earth shoes, Chicago blues.” Meanwhile a shrill chorus interjects, “You can change! You can change! You can cha-EE-ange!” to break the mood. It’s a good song, obviously chosen as lead single because it smoothly transitioned from The Silver Album, but it stalled out at No. 39 on the charts. That was okay because the next single was “Rich Girl.”

Excepting a couple of instrumental interstitials on later albums, “Rich Girl” is at 2:23 the shortest song in their entire catalog. It’s the perfect ‘70s single: economical, smartly orchestrated and nowhere close to simple-minded lyrically. You know a well-off person or two — maybe you’ve been to their homes. Certainly you can perceive a forced altitude in character that comes from a thick wallet and little substance. Hopefully you stole an ashtray. Daryl had a good point, and “Rich Girl” is a great pop song that, ironically, made them rich.

Bigger Than Both Of Us contains some of H&O’s strongest songwriting, especially two of John Oates’ contributions. “Crazy Eyes” throbs with a hard beat and an acoustic posture that resolves in one of Oates’ sweetest choruses. “You’ll Never Learn” was his meanest rock song, a dressing-down that’s sort of an intramural retort to “Do What You Want”: “You can change” (again with the “you can change”), “You’re not too far gone/Life’s such a pain, ain’t it?/No dying, no fun.”

“Rich Girl” aside it’s the rock songs that define this album: the loopy “Kerry,” the modest “London, Luck and Love” and the swaggering but uncertain “Room to Breathe.” Hall’s closing “Falling” is a multi-movement triumph, starting with Daryl elegantly dialing in languor over simpatico Fender Rhodes chords and untimed vocals. Then it accelerates into an insistent but still gentle beat, Oates performs a heroically prog guitar solo, and then the song wipes into an electronic, nearly Krautrock coda that cops a 2001: A Space Odyssey feel as their makeup artist plunges into the void.

Rating: 7.4 out of 10

Hall and Oates discography Beauty on a back streetBeauty On a Back Street
(1977; RCA)

Don’t feel bad if you hate this album: so do Hall & Oates. When they put together their box set Do What You Want, Be What You Are in 2009, not one of its 74 tracks came from this album. It has a common thread of disappointment and spite. It’s not much fun, so you couldn’t fault anyone for thinking the album had fallen off the face of the earth.

But it’s better than they think it is. One song belonged on that box set: “Bigger Than Both Of Us,” which was on Beauty and not the album named after it. It’s a tough breakup song blanched in pessimism, but with strong build and a great chorus. Hall’s self-pity translates into skepticism: “Just think of me as another page in your life/A curious way for you to pass the time/Just another memory when you’re middle-aged.” That’ll sober up those Sex And The City girls.

There aren’t any happy endings on Beauty, but there are good songs: Hall’s doubting “Don’t Change,” his sneering rocker “You Must Be Good For Something,” and the Frankie Lymon-esque inquiry “Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Heart.” Oates’ closing “The Girl Who Used to Be” is tender in its fatalism, with rueful guitar arpeggios that predate Todd Rundgren’s “Tiny Demons.”

True, there are more misfires than usual. Oates’ “The Emptyness” [sic] overplays the anguish of “She’s Gone” into creepy psychodrama. Hall’s “Bad Habits and Infections” is frantic and unfocused New York rock interrupted by a jarringly light-sounding bridge. “Winged Bull” is a curious attempt at Eastern fusion that both cites raga strains and rips off Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.”

Beauty on a Back Street is generally sufficient material weighed down by exhaustion that seeps through the room and affects everyone involved except for bassist Leland Sklar, whose excellence on this album sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s not so much a false step as it is a small, sideways, kind of limping one.

Rating: 5.8 out of 10

Hall and Oates discography Along the Red LedgeAlong the Red Ledge
(1978; RCA)

Remember when I said Hall & Oates played with the conventions of album sides? I was talking about Along The Red Ledge, where they don’t play with the idea so much as they drive it to a deserted military base in Nevada and blow it up. Something’s off-kilter on both sides of Along the Red Ledge.

David Foster’s production sounds remote and reverberant on Side One, but there’s a new edge. “It’s A Laugh,” a Top 40 single, never settles on a key in the verses and resolves in a Brian Wilson-like chorus. Hall’s cynicism is more wistful and complicated. “The Last Time” is a Phil Spector homage with a mournful guitar cameo from George Harrison. Side One’s other songs are closer to their established soul sound, but two of them — “Melody For A Memory” and “Have I Been Away Too Long” — have the barest hint of aggression.

Side Two starts with as drastic a move as H&O made: the four hardest rock songs they ever lined up, with H&O fully invested by drafting a small army of guitarists (Rick Nielsen, Rundgren, Caleb Quaye) to deliver the goods. So many things should not work on Side Two and they all do. Like “Alley Katz,” which blended raw New York energy with Aerosmith’s “Draw The Line.” (It also began Hall’s habit of using drawn-out metaphors, as we’ll see again in a bit.)

“Don’t Blame It On Love” is Hall’s greatest rock song, showered with Robert Fripp’s wavering guitar and electronics, and sudden shifts. It’s hard not to hear it as a defense of the duo’s career to that point, in-reverse optimism about their music: “When they fall you know the loser’s always deified/Winner only takes home the prize.” Then comes Oates’ best rock song: “Serious Music,” an intricate tribute to George Gershwin filtered through a Thin Lizzy verse, pop-prog violins and a woozy space dream sequence.

Along The Red Ledge concludes with John’s silly ‘60s parody “Pleasure Beach” and Hall’s unearthly ballad “August Day,” finishing out their bravest side to date with levity and exhalation. Hard to blame H&O for that: They both subtly tweaked and radically shattered their sound on the same album, and it was their best since Abandoned Luncheonette.

Rating: 8.0 out of 10

(1979; RCA)

Hall & Oates brought producer David Foster back, maybe because Red Ledge was an unexpected critical success, maybe because the kid still worked cheap. X-Static pitted rock off against pop again, but since Red Ledge was such a bombshell they were going to have to pull off some surprises.

Disco was the elephant in the room that Hall & Oates had miraculously not yet addressed. X-Static’s forays into dance music do have some freshness. That doesn’t make the dance material less artificial, but maybe more palpable. “Who Said The World Was Fair” races so quickly Daryl can barely inhale, but the strong melody saves it. “Running From Paradise” is a sexual protest song in which the girl in Hall’s clutches is staring at the mirror on the ceiling of the bedroom (not sure whose), while he obediently gives her “every pose you asked for.” He’s just another pastrami on rye to her. “Portable Radio,” almost as panting as “Who Said,” is too contemporary for its own good.

X-Static is hit-and-miss, but its hit’s a great one. “Wait For Me” is as sincere a love song as Hall could make, a pleading piano ballad with startling muscle that develops as it goes, held together by a pitch-perfect chorus. John’s “All You Want Is Heaven” continues his big-chord winning streak, great power-pop you suspect he could churn out all day if he wanted to.

The rest just jumps around. The blue collar rock of “Woman Comes and Goes” is sleazy and sloppy, but works. “Number One” is an obvious genre exercise — this time reggae. The album ends with songs that highlight Hall & Oates’ uneasy treaty with hard rock and new wave. Oates’ stuttering, punk-admiring “Bebop/Drop” feels like a concept looking for a song. “Intravino” (yep, its real name) ends it with a greasy combination of power chords and chirpy new wave keyboards, plus a list of Daryl’s favorite wines.

X-Static’s confusion was at least happier than Beauty On a Back Street — it’s not boring — but it was the last album on which they relied on someone else’s services as producer. At the time nobody had a clue just how big that shoe-drop was gonna be.

Rating: 6.7 out of 10

Part Three: Big Bam Boom

Hall and Oates discography voicesVoices
(1980; RCA)

You’re getting 16 reviews in this package. Fifteen of them are as objective as can be. This one isn’t. I can’t be objective about Voices. In fact I’m so brainwashed about Voices that I can’t even guess what any criticism there would be about it. I’m sure many theoreticians would be able to deconstruct our appeal and explain how it falls short, but la-la-la-la I can’t hear you.

Hall & Oates produced Voices themselves (at the urging of David Foster, Oates claimed). There was nothing in the way of a record label schoolmarm hanging over. I don’t know if they were playing with house money from RCA, but the songs on Voices certainly didn’t reflect the looming presence of an oppressive commercial force. Yet Voices produced three Top 15 singles in 1980. The best way I can defend the album is by ignoring them until the next-to-last paragraph. Pretend they don’t exist. What you’d have left are seven of their most fully realized, impactful pop songs that broke meaningful ground as songwriters and constructionists, and one piece of filler that’s still justified.

It starts off with three straight rock songs with zero keyboards. Oates’ “How Does It Feel To Be Back” — actually the first single released from the album (it hit No. 30) — is a Rickenbacker fan’s delight, their warmest opening track. It’s a deceptive return to simplicity. Hall follows up with the Cars-like “Big Kids,” a reserved and level-headed jab at (I’m projecting) MBAs sloughing through entry-level, and “United State,” an example of Hall’s still-young embrace of metaphors (“Make an amendment to the constitution/To preserve the state of our union!”). Cheeky, yes, but it’s amusing to hear how Hall is going to write himself out of this one, while still knowing what to do with rock guitars.

Oates’ “Hard To Be In Love With You” rips a page from Cheap Trick’s book, flashing with what Elvis Costello would lovingly call a “big stupid guitar” riff, and Hall & Oates have the poise to make it smart. They get bizarre with “Gotta Lotta Nerve,” a rubbery new wave jerker that bounces around with sudden drops, stabs of doo-wop and a nearly anachronistic piano break. Speaking of doo-wop, “Diddy Doo Wop (I Hear the Voices)” closes the album with a pitch-black portrait of a serial killer’s music-obsessed mind, and H&O are brazen and crazy enough to reference David “Son Of Sam” Berkowitz’s alleged fascination with their music: “Charlie liked the Beatles/Sam, he liked ‘Rich Girl’/But I’m still hung upon the Duke of Earl.” That’s just fucked up. And somehow the chorus makes all of it okay.

The filler was Oates’ “Africa,” but it’s a fun beach-blanket-bingo diversion with sly references to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” And it’s better than the goddamn Toto song. The absolute, total opposite of filler is Hall’s “Everytime You Go Away,” which British singer Paul Young had a #1 hit with in a drastically antiseptic version, practically an entirely different song. Hall’s original is straight out of Stax Records, building from deathly silence broken by a ticking rim shot, Hammond organ and Cropper-matic guitar. It’s all there to support Hall’s greatest vocal performance. In one song Hall & Oates convey what brought them together in the first place: soul music’s power through silence, build-up and release.

I’m just now realizing how much of the past is integrated in Voices’ deep cuts. They could knock out bright R&B songs at the drop of a hat, but the references to past music on this album feel like the first time they’ve let themselves be honest. They let go, they joke around, they push their compositional limits, they bring the house down. That artistic freedom stuff actually means something here — they know what they came to do eight years before this, and now they can just fucking do it already.

Almost forgot: the hits. Well, they were “Kiss On My List,” “You Make My Dreams” and their cover of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” (which they recorded as an afterthought). They’re sprinkled throughout the album’s middle; they wanted you to work up to them. “Kiss” was immediate, simple and affectionate, yet it had a disquieting synth just south of the chorus that gives it dimension. “Dreams” is a brash, unique Top 5 hit: a riff, a beat and a lyric that’s instantly warm and familiar, but you can’t possibly duplicate it. And “Lovin’ Feeling” – well, they’d earned it, and they made the most out of it.

I’m giving Voices the lowest possible grade I can give it in good conscience. Just know it’s one of my 15 or so favorite albums ever, so in my mind it’s a 10/10. But for you, one day only:

Rating: 9.3 out of 10

Private Eyes Hall and Oates discographyPrivate Eyes
(1981; RCA)

Their self-determinism validated, Hall & Oates made their most confident work in short order. Almost every song on Private Eyes is shaped and formed with the lurking possibility that it could be a radio hit. But the two riskiest songs were released as singles, one of them becoming one of the most instantly recognizable No. 1 hits of the ‘80s.

Hall & Oates paired their melodic conventions with a wallop. The title song is “Kiss On My List” in a minor key (and another Hall metaphor) anchored by Mickey Curry’s thick snare drum, the signature sound of Private Eyes. It’s all over the album’s most forceful songs. The beats punch up Oates’ somewhat directionless “Mano A Mano” and his gorgeously descending “Friday Let Me Down.” They fasten up Hall’s overly busy “Head Above Water” and his curt social commentary “Some Men.” But they never overwhelm the harmonious charms; they provide a brashness that pushes the songs over. That’s good with “Did It In A Minute,” which rebounds off the title’s overly precious internal rhyme into a something more insistent. Dismounting from the oil-drum snare, “Looking For a Good Sign” repays an acknowledged debt to their old friends the Temptations.

“Your Imagination” is so arch it’s buried near the close of the album, yet was chosen as its final single. It’s a big gem Hall & Oates hid in plain sight. A heavy guitar thud plays off an eerie instrumental hook whose particular instrument I can’t make out. It’s either organ or heavily treated guitar. Curry’s drumming is insistent clockwork, and all Hall has to do is ride the groove out and fill in spaces. It’s a vitalizing, great track.

“I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” launched a thousand schoolyard parodies. Bouncing off a steady, gentle 808 beat, “I Can’t Go For That” layers on feather beds full of synth and Oates’ understated single-note funk guitar line, while Hall waxes a lyric about emotional proprietorship. (Supposedly the lyric’s actually about their pre-Voices label affairs.) It might take years for “I Can’t Go For That” to fully work; it’s at once obvious and clever. But it sounds like nothing before or since, and like the rest of Private Eyes it’s so sure of itself you can’t help but float along with it.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

(1982; RCA)

In terms of commerciality, I suppose, Hall & Oates’ gut instincts regarding where to go with H2O were right: It’s their biggest-selling studio album. But something cold, underthought and off-putting runs through it, and for the first time Hall & Oates betrayed a sense of exhaustion with their music and characters; dismissive cattiness, or worse, settles in. For a such a big hit, H2O sure is cranky.

I mean, it starts off with “Maneater,” with its mechanized “You Can’t Hurry Love” backbeat and its red enamel artifice. The subject’s either a prostitute or what I apologetically call a gold digger, but either way it’s a theme that’s handled with a lot of sleekness and little depth. It also spent six weeks at No. 1, reinforcing our feelings on the shallowness of the yuppie age. Maybe it’s a social commentary, like Phil Ochs.

Folks took “Maneater” to task for its apparent misogyny, which was unfair — ‘cause if it’s misogyny you want, just skip on over to “Open All Night.” It’s a metaphor for an unfaithful partner — yes, it’s what you think it is — an extraordinarily distasteful song that doesn’t deserve the second-best arrangement on Side One. The best goes with “One On One,” the single moment on H2O that excels. Not surprisingly it’s a plea for earned intimacy in a morass of materialistic mistrust, with some of H&O’s spookiest, most gorgeous keyboard pulses.

H2O is done in by Side One. “Crime Pays” is a minimalist, monotone complaint whose groove predates similar sounds on Talking Heads’ Speaking In Tongues by two years. “Art of Heartbreak” might be the worst H&O song ever: melodically restricted, passively sung with a cheesy sax line aspiring to sleaze. It sounds like it’s from the soundtrack of a C-level ‘80s sex comedy starring a supporting character from a ‘70s TV sitcom who knew the movie was his last shot.

The back six of H2O don’t fare much better, although “Delayed Reaction” is a power-pop shifter that at least rocks a little and brings back hooks; “Go Solo,” despite its meanness, emulates some of Todd Rundgren’s most lush midtempo numbers with thoughtfulness. But the rest — including a by-the-numbers cover of Mike Oldfield’s “Family Man” and two exceedingly awkward Oates songs, “Italian Girls” and “At Tension” — don’t get past percolation stage.

H2O is what the ‘80s were in America: distant, self-focused, template-dependent, fatigued. Great art has been borne from such tedium, but on H2O Hall & Oates didn’t tackle the subject so much as they gave into it.

Rating: 4.6 out of 10

Big Bam BoomBig Bam Boom
(1984; RCA)

True to its title Big Bam Boom sounds ginormous, the result of Hall & Oates pairing with seminal hip-hop/electro producer Arthur Baker (Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock”) and cavernous mixer Bob Clearmountain (Springsteen’s Born In The U.S.A., Bowie’s Let’s Dance). They were shooting for a more urbanized sound portrait dotted with auxiliary percussion and fleeting, instant textures. Though that strategy provides Big Bam Boom with the life H2O stifled, it detracted just enough from Hall & Oates’ natural talents that it sometimes threatened to obscure them.

Not on “Out Of Touch,” though. So perfectly assembled it’s almost ridiculous, it atones for H2O’s warmth deficit and melodic apathy with a cattle-sized keyboard hook and Hall back in relationship problem-solving mode. H&O use Baker’s intricate echo sculptures to make the couple seem even smaller. The same process works on “Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid,” a sleeper hit with buffered tension and unexpectedly complex, heartbreaking chords.

The rest of Big Bam Boom offers a lot in the departments of rich beats and left-turn instrumentation, some of which makes up for songwriting that’s a hairpin off its game. “Going Through the Motions,” mysteriously not issued as a single, empties their wheelhouse with cut samples, stop-start rhythm blocks and a full blown horn section dueling with guitar in the bridge. There’s still some discomfort in hearing “Method of Modern Love,” which promises a crackling electro-funk riff in its beginning but devolves into a compromise of Hall’s cute spelling trick and an elusive subject.

“Bank On Your Love” is a stomp-rocker that gets tangled in Hall’s gambling metaphor, and “All-American Girl” just sounds confused. Oates’ “Possession Obsession” doesn’t answer any obvious questions but at least brings them back to their soul roots, even if that naturalism only shows up in the brief a cappella coda. It sounds more like a goodbye wave for an album that works pretty well as long as you don’t pay too much attention.

Rating: 6.8 out of 10

Ooh Yeah!

Ooh YeahOoh Yeah!
(1988; Arista)

There was a four-year break between Big Bam Boom and Ooh! Yeah. Before that Hall & Oates managed to release one new studio album each calendar year except 1983. Maybe as a result, Ooh Yeah! remains the only H&O album where they sound like they’re playing catch-up. While Big Bam Boom availed itself of trappings from ‘80s recording technology, most of it got over on the surprise element. Ooh! Yeah just copied what was going on around them – it doesn’t extract then-modern music and change it into something new, it just plays by its rules. And while there are flashes of Hall & Oates’ traditional strengths in the composition department, Ooh! Yeah bears the glint of concession to the marketplace. Or maybe it’s just that the perspective wasn’t as strong.

Even the better songs on Ooh! Yeah – “Downtown Life,” “Everything Your Heart Desires,” “ReaLove” [sic] – are burdened by flotillas of compulsive over-synthesis that have little or no connection to anything Hall & Oates were about. There’s also a rushed feel to the album, or a tendency to pack as much information into each digital groove as humanly possible. “Downtown Life” feels more like a suburbanite’s idea of how reckless and busy the city is. The constant flow of bell-like synths and Mark Rivera’s now-antiquated saxophone take away from tracks that might have at least some guilty pleasure like “Rocket to God.”

Ultimately it’s the mawkishness of the songwriting itself that sinks Ooh! Yeah. At least “Downtown Life” and “Everything Your Heart Desires” are at least somewhat emotionally complicated. But elsewhere it feels like part of Hall & Oates’ compromise necessitated something of a dumbing down of their content. “Talking All Night” takes the album’s most promising, Latin-based rhythm track and wastes it on double-edge love groans. Similarly, “Rockability” and “Soul Love” are things you write when you’re just starting out in the ‘80s music scene, not something you crank out as a near-elder statesman.

It’s hard to tell what forces are supposed to be at work with Ooh! Yeah, but whatever they are they’re all flushed out onto a thoroughly modern surface that overwhelms whoever Hall & Oates were supposed to be. It’s a war on empty space and inertia. That rarely ends as well as you’d think.

Rating: 4.4 out of 10

change of seasonChange of Season
(1990; Arista)

Hall & Oates must have also gotten the sense that Ooh! Yeah was a pachinko game that had gotten a little out of hand, because their next album was in many ways a full-scale retreat. Well, except for the Bon Jovi collaboration, but even that’s okay. “So Close” (JBJ co-produced and provided “additional music”) was the last Hall & Oates single to come close to the Top 10, and it contained a surprisingly affecting line – “I don’t want to be wise, I just want to stay young” – that, knowingly or not, casts a generational pall over Change of Season.

Their most stripped-down work since The Silver Album, while not surrounded in commiseration, does acknowledge the heady times had ebbed, that there was some last-minute accounting to be done. The cover of Mel & Tim’s Stax soul hit “Starting All Over Again” makes that point in heartbreaking terms. A near copy of the original down to its electric sitar and doleful strings, it’s almost impossible to see it as being about anything other than Daryl & John themselves. To reestablish who they are in relation to each other, they rely on the kind of music that brought them together in the first place.

Oates’ title track is similarly bare and unhurried, as intimate as they ever got, and “Only Love” brings him back to his folk-rock targets with a neat rockabilly guitar and sawing hillbilly fiddles in the mix. The rest of Change of Season belongs to Hall, recast as a conventional album rocker with reflective tendencies. That works when he sings his own compositions (“Sometimes A Mind Changes,” “Everywhere I Look”) and less so when the guy from Mr. Mister is feeding him lines (“Don’t Hold Back Your Love”).

Formula ends up playing some part on Change of Season, but there’s at least some sway in its first, melancholy half, even if it’s just refocusing on the areas of their command. But at least part of its power comes from realizing it was going to be a while before we heard from them again, and that the matter of sorting out their legacy was the next real step.

Rating: 6.1 out of 10

Marigold SkyMarigold Sky
(1997; Push)

Marigold Sky arrived with relatively little announcement, seven years after Change of Season and curiously timed to coincide with nothing anybody could see on the surface of the marketplace. It was touted as a comeback album, although it didn’t quite work out that way. But any semblance of pressure was officially off their backs – reinvented as kinds of “lifestyle” artists at the time, their official re-adoption by musicians still a few years off, Hall & Oates just showed up to see what the internet was all about.

They also revived the side-vs.-side concept of Along the Red Ledge to a certain degree, except the rock side went first, and their familiar R&B went last. With cleanliness and liveliness of production now a key virtue it was inevitable that their rough edges would be sanded down, and Marigold Sky reflects that ethic. But for all that commercial pre-emptiveness, it’s not a bad record.

“Romeo Is Bleeding” is a convincing pop strut with good atmosphere and a nice chorus, and the faux-psychedelic title track moves along nicely, although it doesn’t sound anything like Hall & Oates. In fact the whole of the rock portion tries to recast them in familiar classic rock strains they’d never have done when that kind of music was being made most successfully. But they don’t fail. “Out Of The Blue” and “Love Out Loud” in particular are fairly pleasant.

In a key reversal, in fact, the rock side actually surpasses the R&B side, and that’s mainly because the production oversteps into gloss a bit too much on tracks like “Promise Ain’t Enough” and “Time Won’t Pass Me By.” Even that doesn’t derail “Throw the Roses Away,” a piano ballad with too many satisfying elements to let itself get swallowed up. “I Don’t Think So” reexamines their best soul sides of the ‘70s without succumbing to the opulence on the rest of the side. Marigold Sky will never be a title of great significance to the Hall & Oates birthright, but for what it was and what we were expecting – i.e., nothing – it delivers more comfort and gratification than it maybe deserved to.

Rating: 6.4 out of 10

Do It For LoveDo It For Love
(2003; Sanctuary)

Do It For Love is the last thing resembling a typical Hall & Oates album – Our Kind Of Soul was primarily covers of Philly favorites and Home For Christmas was, well, Christmas-related – and was just successful enough to launch a couple of its singles into the top 10 of Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart. As such I kind of feel I can phone this one in: The point of reviewing any album that speaks straight to the adult contemporary audience is elusive.

But it’s not really Hall & Oates’ fault that Do It For Love went straight to a specific demo, because it’s close to the unheralded Marigold Sky in quality, and as we now know the Hall & Oates story wasn’t quite done. There’s less fuss on this one, and with that approach they’re free to acclimate their best traits to current environments without really giving that much up.

It starts well: Hall’s “Man On A Mission” is as classic Philly as they can get with springing acoustic guitars. The title track is a little mock-heroic but sweetly honorable to ‘70s soul strains. “Someday We’ll Know” is a nice cover of a song from one-album H&O acolytes New Radicals, completing the circle with their old associate Todd Rundgren joining in on vocals.

Do It For Love is paper light most of the rest of the way through, depending more on outside help for songwriting than ever before, but not without its occasional agreeable moments: “Life’s Too Short,” “Miss DJ” and “Intuition” all co-exist nicely. Despite some moments in the second half veering a little close to boy-band territory, on balance it’s pleasant if risk-averse. Oates’ closing topical song “Love In a Dangerous Time” compares favorably to the O’Jays’ topical work. While Do It For Love never burns, it simmers well enough for an uncomplicated upstate autumn afternoon.

But in a few years the renaissance would start, thanks to indie acts’ love of Hall & Oates forcing a broader reappraisal, Hall’s launch of his innovative web series Live From Daryl’s House, Oates moving to Nashville to rebrand himself as a song-oriented solo artist and co-conspirator, and finally their unexpected induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame on their first ballot, just like Nirvana. After 40 years of a band story so imbued with standard ups and downs, story arcs, massive success, easy derision, quick fades and cautious re-emergences, Hall & Oates finally attained a modicum of respect and achievement. I’m sure I’ll miss being the only guy in my age group to defend them, but at least something came of it. I can go for that.

Rating: 6.4 out of 10

View Comments (3)
  • Hi Paul, I realize you wrote this two years ago and I’m thus quite late to the party, but I wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading these retrospective reviews. I do think the later albums are better than you gave them credit for (especially “Ooh Yeah!”), but I found all of your observations fascinating. I’m also a long-time Daryl Hall & John Oates fan and I’m glad there is someone else out there who appreciates their entire body of work as much as I do! The next time anyone I know derides them for being a singles act or a radio fad, I will point that person directly to this article! Thanks!

    • Hey Zane — Thanks for the kind words! (Although it’s over a year since you sent them… apologies.) — P

  • Though I generally agree with your assessment of “Ooh Yeah”, by not mentioning the album’s strongest cut (and an oft-overlooked minor hit) it was a “Missed Opportunity” to make this list even better than it already is!

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