[11 February 2010]
Daryl Hall and John Oates have come full circle in their career, beginning as soul singers and folk artists in Philadelphia, teaming up to reach the zenith of popular success, and still pumping out first-rate soulful music over 40 years later. While their chart dominance may have peaked over 20 years ago, their influence continues to impact bands young and old, and will no doubt continue to do so as long as groups aspire to leverage vocal harmony as strongly as instrumental prowess. Where Simon and Garfunkel and the Everly Brothers were two standard-bearers of pop perfection, Hall and Oates have added their name to the mix as the most successful pop duo of all time. In the music industry, achievements of that magnitude result in a cartload of reissues, anthologies, and best-of collections which rarely if ever hit the nail squarely on the head.
Do What You Want, Be What You Are is a valiant effort, a four-disc set that contains 74 tracks, including an astounding 28 Top 40 hits. Those only looking for a quick primer no doubt own Rock and Soul Part One, a single-disc collection that staples a few early classics to a veritable time capsule of early ‘80s chart dominance. But those looking for a deep dive will likely respond favorably to this collection, which features recordings from their pre-band Philly groups and 16 previously unreleased tracks along with the familiar canon. The informative booklet includes Roy Trankin’s essay and detailed track-by-track commentary from Ken Sharp, including related quotes from Daryl and John and several other artists. However, anthologies by their very nature can never be everything to everyone, and as strong a package as this is, there are gaps that keep it from being a must-own collection.
One could argue that the omission of the recent Marigold Sky and Our Kind of Soul doesn’t weaken the anthology to a great degree; neither is among their better work, and the latter is predominantly a collection of cover songs. But Beauty on a Back Street was a strong album and (along with Along the Red Ledge) the transition between the rock-oriented War Babies and the beginning of their string of dance pop chestnuts. “You Must Be Good for Something” and “Why Do Lovers Break Each Others’ Hearts” are but two stellar tracks that should have easily made the cut; the former a wise-ass rocker and the latter one of the best soulful mid-tempo tunes they have ever recorded. Not only are the three albums not represented with audio tracks, but they are missing from the discography in the liner notes. Just as confounding, for a band that came of age in tandem with MTV and milked the airing of their promos as part of their explosive marketing strategy, not including a DVD of their hit videos in this set almost seems inexcusable.
While not strictly chronological, the four CDs in this set do loosely follow Hall and Oates’s career path from a studio album perspective. Each CD finishes up with live recordings whose material matches up to the era, even if the date of the recording does not. It’s an interesting choice, perhaps to encourage the listener to take the journey rather than centering on the “live disc” or the one with most of the big hits. It’s also interesting to see how their organic sound formed and then was heavily influenced by producers Arif Mardin and David Foster before the duo felt comfortable enough to take the reins themselves. Their studio and touring bands were always peppered with first-rate players, and early confidante Tommy Mottola (aka “Gino the Manager”, later the president of CBS and Sony) brilliantly moved them from a solid but struggling pop band to arguably the most popular recording artist of their time. Unlike some who sat back and took success for granted, Hall and Oates were savvy enough to learn how to thrive and survive in a fickle industry.
Disc One features three early pre-duo tracks recorded as the Temptones (Hall) and the Masters (Oates), in addition to selections from their first three albums. “Waterwheel” ironically echoes early Todd Rundgren, a fellow Philadelphian who two years later would produce War Babies. These early tracks show the progression from R&B soul to soulful piano ballads and chamber pop; the understated beauty of “Had I Known You Better Then” would continue to be their songwriting hallmark even when the more heavy-handed arrangements would become as vivid as the hook. Even the slight theft of “Crystal Blue Persuasion” used as an intro can’t mar “Las Vegas Turnaround”, but the standout track “She’s Gone” might be the best song they would ever write. Tracks from No Goodbyes appropriately draw from the various genres they were dabbling in, and the closing five live tracks (recorded in London, 1975) show the band getting their sea legs, although the stripped-down version of “When the Morning Comes” is the clear highlight.
On Disc Two, the hybrid formula of rock, soul, and pop starts to gel into the Hall and Oates sound, first yielding two of their biggest hits (“Sara Smile” and “Rich Girl”) as they transitioned from producer Christopher Bond’s string arrangements and urban touches to the pop sheen of David Foster’s hit-making touch. Although consistent chart success didn’t immediately strike, songs like “Have I Been Away Too Long” and “It’s a Laugh” demonstrated complex melodic structure and progressive arrangements. With disco about to meet Euro synth-pop in a head-on collision, the tendency towards punchier beats became more pronounced. Mere months later, Voices would explode onto the charts and open up the floodgates. This disc finishes strong with “Time’s Up” (an X-Static outtake), “How Does It Feel to Be Back” (perhaps John Oates’ best vocal), and a stellar live version of “Everytime You Go Away”, the Hall classic that Paul Young turned into a global smash.
If there is a “hits disc” herein, it is Disc Three, which lines up one hit single after another. Beginning with the more up-tempo hits from Voices and rifling through the subsequent triumvirate of Private Eyes, H2O, and Big Bam Boom (the only Hall and Oates albums to hit the Top Ten), there’s barely an unfamiliar moment. Smack in the middle, however, is the previously unreleased “Don’t Go Out”, an oddly textured sonic palette cleanser that curiously blends vocal arrangements from Utopia and the Beach Boys with a pulsating drumbeat and urban sound affects. Much like “Fall in Philadelphia”, this is Oates responding to urban angst (although New York City was the inspiration this time). The disc comes to a close with rousing live tracks from their 1985 Apollo show, including a Temptations medley with David Ruffin and Eddie Kendrick.
Disc Four quickly covers the period from 1998’s Ooh Yeah (their last hit album) to the present, and is the potpourri section of the anthology. Ranging from covers to remixes to live cuts (including a recent live version of the title cut and a recording from Hall’s Internet show) it’s an uneven but interesting reminder of the breadth of their career. It’s an affirmation that, besides being incredible vocalists, their songwriting chops remain strong. Ironically, it also proves that sometimes initial decisions aren’t always the wisest. “Storm Warning” was never included on an album, but is arguably one of the best songs in this collection—an exciting hybrid of Motown soul and the brassy punch of the Eurythmics hit “Would I Lie to You?”. Perhaps if it had been released, more people might have been aware that Storm Warning even existed in 1990.
While this may not be the slam-dunk retrospective that Daryl and John might have envisioned, it does provide a healthy immersion into their storied career beyond the typical album highlights. Their recent resurgence proves that they are far from done, so perhaps even this collection will need an upgrade further on down the road.