By Jack Sharkey, July 18, 2014
Arrangement is an overlooked and almost lost art in popular music. Today, as long as the overly unnatural kick falls on 1 and 3, and the paper-thin snare falls on 2 and 4, you got yourself a beat right there. Next, take a too-fat synth bass and pump it on top of the drums without even a subtle trace of nuance and you got the right amount of noise to drown out the subway on your designer headphones. Guitars and other instruments are boring and unhip so maybe use your Motif keyboard to impersonate a mid-range instrument or two and you're almost done. For vocals, first you need the right amount of vibrato bled through an autotune or parsed second-by-second on your Pro-Tools deck then you need to dress it in some slick outfit and book it on the Today Show and, by George, you got yourself a hit right there. It won't make any money for the artist and it won't last much longer than a year (when's the last time you rocked Blurred Lines on the way to work?), but for a few weeks you'll be all the rage.
This my friends, is a shame.
Call me old (I am but not really that old), call me odd (I am with no qualification by way of explanation), call me out-of-touch (I'm not, I stay hip to all the latest teen jargon and that's both dope and whack at the same time), and call me a musical elitist (I'm not but I am a bit of a snob when it comes to talent level). Call me when you've got that five bucks you owe me.
All of this brings us to this week's Front-to-Back Album, Abandoned Luncheonette by Hall & Oates. Released in 1973, I cannot name another album that has influenced as many good (and great) singers as this one, in fact the best singer I ever had the pleasure of working with felt comfortable working with me because we shared a common love for this record. But what makes this album so special are the arrangements. Well that and the musicianship and the production, but really, it's the arrangements.
- • Released: on Atlantic Records, November 3, 1973
- • Produced by: Arif Mardin
- • Engineered by: Gene Paul, Chris Bond (assistant), Lew Hahn, Jimmy Douglass, Joel Kerr, Alan Ade
- • Mixed by: Lew Hahn, Chris Bond, Jimmy Douglass, Arif Mardin
- • Recorded at: Atlantic Recording Studios and Advantage Sound, both New York, NY
- • Written by: Darryl Hall and John Oates
- • Total Length: 36:42
Reached Number 33 on the Billboard Top 200 Album Chart in 1976 after the release of She's Gone as a single after the success of Sara Smile in 1975.
She's Gone was released as a single in 1973 and reached Number 60 on the US Singles Chart. It reached Number 7 when it was re-released in 1976.
Before John Oates became Darryl Hall's trusty, and smirky, sidekick in all of those ubiquitous Big, Bam Boomtastic MTV videos in the 1980s, there was this humble soul duo from Philadelphia with phenemonal voices who wrote great songs that not a lot of people heard. That all changed after the release of H&O's third album, but it is their second album that told the world just how deeply their talents ran. Point to ponder: If Arif Mardin had not believed in H&O's talent after their debut album flopped and had just given up on them, like record labels do to artists today, think of the music that never would have gotten released in the following 25 years.
Just looking at the credits, you get a feel for the rich tapestry of music you are about to experience. Sure some of this record is a bit dated, that's because it's 41 years old. Go find someone who is 41 years old and see how dated they look. But, unlike that 41 year old dude in the cube next to you, a little bit of old is easily overshadowed by a whole lot of great. To a generation who thinks great music can only be found on American Idol or The Voice or So You Think You Sing And Dance And Tell Jokes, or whatever it is the kids are getting their musical influences from these days, this record offers a little bit of everything for a whole lot of everybody.
1. When the Morning Comes (3:12): The album opens with a great little synth riff that could only have been recorded in the early 1970s hovering over the incredibly tight and easy rhythm section of Gelfand and Purdie. By the way, if you're a Purdie fan and you don't own this record you're not a Purdie fan. A somewhat melancholy song about the way women make men feel, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this song. Could it be it is a perfect song? Probably not, but it's pretty darn close. The mix and production of this song is stunning and I challenge even the most ardent audiophile to find a cut that works a system over better than this one.
2. Had I Known You Better Then (3:22): Sung by Oates this time, this is another song about how women make men feel. The slide guitar has a touch of Nashville without being ironic, but the Fender Rhodes piano counters that southern drift by pulling you right back north (and east). A nice lesson in nuance and dynamics takes place around the 2:35 mark as the song gently crescendos (if there is such a thing) and then falls right back into the mellow groove that supports the super-tight (and simply produced) harmonies.
3. Las Vegas Turnaround (the stewardess song) (2:57): Being a hip and with-it Twenty-Teens kind of guy I felt a little out-of-touch even typing the words "stewardess song" but then I decided to feel quaint and anachronistic instead. If I have one complaint througout this entire album is the sound of the sax that jumps in at the 1:32 mark. It just sounds very electric and shallow to me, especially on a big system. I can't tell if that was the intention or the technology and at the end of the day it's not a very big deal, but it's enough to notice. The sax notwithstanding, listen to the vocal arrangement, put on your puka shells, pour yourself a Harvey Wallbanger and just enjoy!
4. She's Gone (5:15): Unusually long for a pop single (Atlantic did butcher the heck out of it when it was re-released in 1976), this is a fine example of an amazing song that has been played to the point of being nothing more than background noise. I often feel the same way about Billy Joel, his stuff is unbelievably good but I heard it so much for so long that I forget that. She's Gone is a beautifully performed and produced song and rediscovering it on its own has been kind of fun. The best part, besides pretty much everything about this song (except that sax!)? The strings at 3:31.
5. I'm Just A Kid (Don't Make Me Feel Like A Man) (3:20): Probably the most dated sounding song on the album. That's because our collective memory of Hall & Oates is as older guys Big, Bam, Booming it across the 80s. But in 1973, John Oates (who wrote and sang this one) was 24 years old. The spoken parts, through the lense of the current musical scene may come across a little trite and forced, but the emotion Oates is trying to convey here work when you look at the song in the context of a young guy on the precipice of fame.
6. Abandoned Luncheonette (3:55): The title track opens what is maybe one of the strongest side two'sever put to vinyl. A sad song about growing old, which means this was a song about people who were young prior to World War II, melancholy and whimsy play off each other wonderfully. I hear an Artie Shaw horn section in the background, with reeds and muted trumpets at about the 0:41 mark and even though there is no horn section mentioned in the credits, its obvious that, in a throwback to the studio days of New York, a bunch of union guys came in and read some chart (arranged by Mardin according to the credits), took their union scale pay and went home. The horn players then had to make way later for the string section that came in and helped us slowly Lindy our way through the outro of the song. Perfection. In a way, we all sort of live in an abandoned luncheonette.
7. Lady Rain (4:26) - Don't let the easy groove lull you into thinking this one is going to be a throwaway soft-rock tune. Listen for the electric violin (or is it a gnarly cello or some mixture of the two) in the second verse and you'll get a hint where this song is taking you. The breakdown at 2:20 introduces us to the violin solo Pete Townshend had in mind when he wrote Baba O'Reilly. This is an incredibly moody song that comes across much harder and intense than the instrumentation would lead you to expect – that's the joy of listening to great musicians play greatly.
8. Laughing Boy (3:30) - Hall is obviously singing directly about someone he knows. The piano is simple and recorded somewhat small, which works nicely against Hall's vocal. A little natural reverb on both gives us a sense of space that doesn't overwhelm the material. The uncredited cello comes in under the flugelhorn 2:11 giving the casual listener a sense that they are listening to more than just three instruments, thank you very much mixing engineers! A little 12 note violin run before the ending adds to the emotion of the tune without making a nuisance of itself.
9. Everytime I Look At You (7:04) - In high school, I had a friend named Jim who was a few years older than me and who drank an awful lot. He also worked as a TV/electronics repair guy in his father's shop. I was aware of Abandoned Luncheonette from my older brother (who I stole it from to listen to quite frequently), but it was this song, on my friend Jim's utterly amazing stereo that reinforced to me that I was really only interested in music and how it sounded in terms of what I was going to do with the rest of my life. This musical tour de force comes replete with a big horn section, a nasty guitar sent through a Wah pedal, Hall's incredible vocals, and pure unadulterated funk. If you think you know what funk is but really aren't sure because you're kind of afraid to admit that you think Ariana Grande is cutting-edge funk, listen to the horn and vocal interplay in the second verse then consider yourself schooled. The song, and the album, end with an accelerando that pulses under the closing chorus. Listen for the insane note Hall hits at 5:41 as the vocals give way to a little kick between the banjo and fiddle. Yes that's right, one of the most intense funk/soul songs you'll ever hear ends with a call and response between a fiddle and a banjo. That, my friends, is pure genius.
Abandoned Luncheonette is best listened to:
- • With a lava lamp. Or two.
- • With people who really appreciate dense musical tapestries
- • With headphones, but then again really loud in the air is good too
- • On vinyl. If you can't do vinyl at least the remastered CD. Please, not the MP3.
- • Wine would be nice