Thursday, 19 December 2013

Soft Rock Follies... a love of the laid back and righteous

There was a brilliant series published on YouTube a few years ago called Yacht Rock. This dramatic saga parodied the heady days of the late 70s and the early 80s when an oft forgotten genre call Soft Rock ruled the airwaves. Emanating from the sounds of Steely Dan and Boz Scaggs this genre was firmly planted in West Coast America where bearded stoners in Hawaiian shirts and stone wash jeans made great pop-rock tunes with a large emphasis on clean production and quality of music (over quality of lyrics). 

Many of the main players of the genre had already established a career as prolific session musicians, looking for some limelight of their own, others were young upstarts keen to make a name for themselves in the hotbed of the LA music scene laced with alcohol, drugs and casual sex. One would think that such an environment would produce the aggressive music of The Doors or perhaps the biting insistency of Motley Crue yet it was the mellow vein that seemed to captivate artists between 1976 - 1981 and to my mind, so much the better. 

As I have reiterated in many a previous post, my friends are often sick to death of some of the music I insist on playing them, so insipid do they find it! Yet I still love it, for me it is timeless,  enjoying it so much as to repeat play it on my stereo system as on stations like Magic and Smooth! Here is my pick of my top five albums from the genre (in no particular order): 

Minute by Minute (1978) - Doobie Brothers: Probably the quintessential album of ‘Soft Rock’ released in the wake of the genre’s zenith, it is rightly regarded as a classic and one of the strongest outings in the band’s catalogue. By this stage former frontman Tom Johnston had been replaced by Michael Macdonald (with his idiosyncratic vocals) and it shows in the more romantic songwriting and the slicker production. Coming to the Doobie Brothers from the Steely Dan session stable a few before, Macdonald really stamps his mark on the group with instant classics such as the insistent ‘What Fools Believe’ (a Grammy winning track, co-written with Kenny Loggins) and the lilting Minute by Minute’. The album cover featuring the whole band in ‘LA’ mode is another classic with a number of the group living up to their suggestive name. 

Red Cab To Manhattan (1980) - Stephen Bishop: Most people will never heard of Stephen Bishop but I can guarantee that they will, at some stage, have seen him. He has a very prominent cameo as a folk singer in ‘Animal House’ whose guitar is smashed to pieces by John Belushi’s ‘Bluto’, a gig he secure from being the then boyfriend of Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’). Although laced with soft rock sensibilities this bittersweet record was made during their break-up and many of the songs focus on classic soft rock material such as: longing, reflection and romance with a good dose of cynicism thrown in. Bishop was and is a sporadic artist and his music is always of interesting bursting out at different tangents every so often. It makes for a slightly inconsistent listen but when he hits, he hits hard. Tracks like ‘Send a little love my way’, ‘Story of a boy in love’ and the title track are top-notch. 

Christopher Cross (1979) - Christopher Cross: I have already written about Christopher Cross in another post so I will make do with an extract from that brilliant analysis of his Grammy award winning record: I know I must sound incredibly gushing about this album but it really is one that, for me at least, has not one dud cut on it - very rare for a soft rock album. It also has one of the most impressive groups of musicians who Cross called upon to help create it: Don Henley, Jay Graydon, J D Souther, Larry Carlton, Victor Feldman, Nicolette Larson and the aforementioned Michael McDonald. But let us not forget Cross, who has a unique and very engaging vocal talent as well and an incredibly good hand when it came to writing pop music and gauging the popular mood at the turn of the 1970s. If I am right this was one of the last albums to be released in 1979 and serves as an exceptional and truly awesome end to the decade.’ 

Rumours (1977) - Fleetwood Mac - What more can one add about this heroin-drench, smash hit album? Probably the greatest soft rock triumph of all time, with people wearing out record-after-record from its release in 1977 to present day this is the stuff of legends right from the initially fraught recording sessions, the grueling touring through to the behind the scenes hedonism which saw some of the greatest excesses in music history come to the fore...(breath)... this is such a treat for the first time listener from the opening chords of Second Hand News to the sombre Daddy. Then there are the hits, now classics of contemporary music: Don’t Stop, Go Your Own Way, You Make Lovin’ Fun and The Chain. The whole album works, each track is worth a listen and just goes to shows the irony of a band who in reality were on the very edge but were one of the musically cohesive acts of their time. If you buy one album from this list then make it this one!

Cat in the Hat (1980) - Bobby Caldwell - What would one of these reviews be without a mention of one of my favourite albums, the one that I bore you all to death with! Again, like Cross I have already waxed lyrical so I will direct you to an extract and a shamelessly place link: ‘Each track is a meticulously played, meticulously produced and has real passion. Funky and soulful, Caldwell had already dazzled with his debut album and the smash (and oft sampled) 'What you won't do for love'. This album was different, very slick and soulful lacking the harder edge and resonating chords of Cat in the Hat. Nowhere on the record is this more apparent than on the most famous and sampled track 'Open your Eyes' an oft overlooked 80s pop classic with echoed vocals and rollocking piano chords descending into a dirty guitar riff which will imprint itself on your mind for hours after listening to it.

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