The Best of The Call: The Millennium Collection
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Somehow I’ve found myself swamped in retro compilations and collections. Maybe it’s the result of listening to re-canned music too often, but after a while you begin to see that reissues, best-ofs, compilations, and collections all have some things in common. First and foremost is the question of whether these collections make any sense, i.e. who cares if such and such has a new “best of” in the stores? This question seemed to circle around both the new Spin Doctors collection, Just Go Ahead Now: A Retrospective, and The Call’s introduction into the Millennium Collection series with The Best of The Call: the Millennium Collection, therefore I’ve decided to lump the two together in one review because they both seem to answer that question with a big fat negative.
Respectively, both albums are decent enough and as compilations go they manage to include all the songs that matter. Fans of either group might be able to point to non-single album tracks that are better or more representative of the bands, but try selling that to a label. And both bands had their time and place, at different points and seemingly different genres in this comparison, but still worthy of remembrance. However, the time for both bands has long passed and their place has been more than filled.
The Spin Doctors exploded funk into a fairly straight rock genre of alternative/modern/college radio stations and listeners in 1992. “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues” went from being an underground hit to a viable commercial single, paving the way for the massive success of “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” (about which everyone I knew at the time had a person that the song fit) and the long-lived “Two Princes”. The Spin Doctors are also responsible, at least in some markets, for the exodus of “alternative” pop-rock away from college and AOR stations into a new market category of radio in 1995-96. At least, that’s how long “Two Princes” hung around the national music consciousness. And all that from their first album, Pocket Full of Kryptonite.
But unlike their contemporaries in the alternative-turned-top-40-popsters category (Collective Soul, Dave Matthews Band, Hootie and the Blowfish), the Spins were unable to come up with another big single from their second release. Although “You Let Your Heart Go Too Fast” from 1994’s Turn It Upside Down found a bit of success, people really just wanted to hear “Two Princes” on repeat, over and over and over again, until they were burned on the whole concept of the Spin Doctors.
Which is, truly, a shame. As Just Go Ahead Now shows, it was on the tracks that were scattered amongst the singles that the Spins really shined, and showed their true colors. While it’s doubtful that the band would ever want to disavow their chart topping singles, it was in the funk jams and slippery grooves that the Spins really spun. “Cleopatra’s Cat” (which admittedly did get some attention) is one of the coolest songs the band ever wrote, while the weird and funky “Hungry Hamed’s” is definitely in competition. And the last track to grace this retrospective, a live version of “Refrigerator Car” from their first album, shows that when they played live, the hippie jam aspect of the band was dazzling.
But after one great and popular album, one great but commercially disappointing album, and one mostly ignored album (with an early live album thrown in the mix), the Spin Doctors are gone, as is the time and space their 15 minutes took up. And to play of Warhol a bit, I’m going to make my own prediction, of which Just Go Ahead Now is a good example: in the near-future our nostalgia will be strongest for five years ago. But if that’s true (and I get to be as oft quoted as Andy) it would mean that there is a strong market for this retrospective of a band whose career died in 1996. Unfortunately for them, and for my own will to fame, I don’t think this is true. Blues Traveler might still be able to sell out concerts among Deadheads and Phish might be keeping the jam alive for an alive and kicking subculture, but collections like this are superfluous. Those folks already have copies of the Spins albums and don’t need a “best of”. The rest of us just don’t care anymore.
Listening to another of the albums released under the obsequious “Millennium Collection” rubric, the time the best-of devoted to The Call, I came to realize that while there is a generous market for nostalgia, there is an even bigger market for tax write-off productions. My first, second, and third impressions of this disc fell on a fine line directly between Ben Varkentine’s excellent review of The Fixx’s own Millennium Collection and my recent take on Alphaville’s Stark Naked and Absolutely Live.
Mr. Varkentine calls the whole Millennium Collection project into question, and rightly so. The Call has a greater claim to fame than The Fixx, but not quite enough to warrant the MC’s label of “the most significant music artists of the past century”. To be fair, Michael Been’s outfit was a semi-commercially successful presence in the ‘80s, scored a fair number of radio singles, and were well respected by critics and other musicians for Been’s lyrical odes and the band’s straightforward approach to music. The Call still gets the occasional nod from AC album rock stations on songs that have the requisite nostalgic effect like “Let the Day Begin”, “The Walls Came Down”, and “Everywhere I Go”. But, as the liner notes will tell you, “Let the Day Begin” is The Call’s only bona fide hit, reaching #1 on the Album Rock charts and #5 on the Modern Rock charts (remember when Modern Rock was its own entity, kids?).
But, as I said in my review of Alphaville, some things that are predicated on nostalgia aren’t all bad. Alphaville got props for putting out new material in spite of their long-dated status, and good material to boot. The Call gets them for being at the very least interesting, and at their very best, a good band. Michael Been can write a good song, there’s no question. They may not be challenging or innovative, but they are catchy and imminently listenable. Whether or not they’re essential is another question. Hearing Been sing on this disc reminds one instantly of the ‘80s; hearing the Manheim Steamroller-ish keyboard parts is, at times, a painful reminder of the ‘80s. My all-time favorite Call song, “I Still Believe (Grand Design)”, is included on this disc in a live version, but the sad fact is that Tim Capello’s cover of the song on The Lost Boys soundtrack is superior to The Call’s original.
All in all, this disc holds nothing of interest to the very people who are likely to buy it. Fans of The Call will be unimpressed by the wimpy bio in the liner notes and that fact that every song on this disc is available on The Call releases that they already own. Even the live version of “I Still Believe” is simply lifted from The Call’s recently released live album, Live Under the Red Moon, which would be a better buy for fans. In fact, this album is only really meant to appeal to those who have heard a song or two they liked on the radio in the past and want to own them in some safe form. But with a bevy of 20th Century Masters out there to check into and a new Millennium of new music to chose from, these people are going to be few and far between.
I’d just like to make one last comment, and that’s that compilations, collections, and retrospectives aren’t necessarily a bad thing. There are artists whose music is timeless, or, if not timeless, then at least historical enough to warrant reissues. As the obvious success of the Beatles’ 1 shows, people want to remember and it can be convenient to remember in a pre-packaged collection of peaks and successes. But do the Spin Doctors or The Call really command this desire as much as, say, the Beatles or Neil Young? No. But after 1‘s runaway success, we can expect to see even more middle of the road success stories rolling out their “classics”. Will the record execs ever learn? Your dollars will decide….