[1 December 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Has Daryl Hall ever been cooler than he is now? The last decade has seen his work as half of Hall & Oates go from the 1980s nostalgia bin to the rock pantheon. He has become something of a pop culture icon, appearing on hip television shows from Will & Grace to Flight of the Conchords. The electro-pop duo the Bird and the Bee released a non-ironic album of Hall & Oates covers. Though hardly revolutionary, Hall’s Live at Daryl’s House webcast has featured forward-thinking acts like Chromeo and Company of Thieves.
This newfound respect has put Hall in something of an awkward position. Since Hall & Oates’ chart presence started to fade in the late ‘80s, the duo’s bread and butter has been the adult contemporary scene. That’s right, the safe, comfortable, retiree-friendly neighborhood where Sting and Rod Steward now live. Hipsters who grew up listening to “Private Eyes” on the radio may give Hall his credibility, but it’s still primarily their moms and dads who fill the seats at concerts and shell out for CDs.
Hall made his first solo album, the edgy Sacred Songs, with Robert Fripp. He is not exactly a stranger to more progressive types of music. Now would seem to be a great time for him to call on one of his alterna-rock fans like Ben Gibbard or some of his Live At Daryl’s House collaborators. He would risk alienating some of that core adult alternative audience, sure. But he would have a chance to prove that, in his mid-60s, he is capable of making music as revitalized as his reputation. Instead, Hall made Laughing Down Crying with longtime collaborators and studio pros Paul Pesco and Greg Bieck. Old Hall & Oates hands T-Bone Wolk, Mickey Curry and Charlie DeChant also make appearances.
Out of the gate, it seems Laughing Down Crying is going to strike a safe but agreeable balance between what the old folks want and what the younger kids might like. The title track has a warm, acoustic guitar-led, singer-songwriter type sound that suits Hall well. It’s also a strong composition, with a confident, understated melody and self-confessional lyrics. Hey, maybe one reason Hall is now so cool is that he’s never tried too hard to be.
Then Laughing Down Crying falls victim to its creator’s previous accomplishments. It plays like a revue of all the styles and influences Hall has displayed over his 40-year career, only flattened out for, you guessed it, adult alternative radio. “Talking to You” and “Lifetime of Love” are would-be Hall & Oates pop songs, complete with rich backing vocals and Hall’s trademark quarter-note electric piano. Fair enough; but then comes “Eyes For You”, a transparent, pale attempt to invoke the most soulful song ever created by white men, “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)”. It’s enough to make you grab your Hall & Oates Greatest Hits and run for cover.
The smooth, mildly funky “Save Me” and southern soul stomp of “Message To Ya” are serviceable, and “Wrong Side of History” hints at the efficient FM pop of Hall & Oates’ history, but the chorus doesn’t quite follow through. At least Hall’s voice is consistently on task. It’s a bit more gruff than it used to be, but it’s still a wonderful thing. Hall hasn’t lost his knack for creative phrasing, either. Yet after the title track, only the bluesy closer “Problem With You” leaves a lasting impression. A brooding blues number, it features Laughing Down Crying‘s strongest lyric, “I give you 110 per cent / And 10 per cent of that’s cryin’”. Also, it is the last recorded work of Wolk, a much-respected sideman and arranger who died of a heart attack hours after the session ended.
Coming from someone with Hall’s experience and talent, though, Laughing Down Crying shouldn’t have to rely on an unfortunate happenstance for a sense of purpose. Maybe Hall doesn’t have anything left to prove, but you would hope he had more left to say.