[1 November 2006]
Most Americans know Canadian Andy Kim, if they know him at all, for his genial 1974 hit “Rock Me Gently”, a well-honed single that moves like clockwork through all its big hooks and changes. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think it was by Neil Diamond, which is no surprise, as Kim, like Diamond, became successful as a Brill Building songwriter. And Kim honed his craft under the tutelage of Jeff Barry, who produced some of Diamond’s early hits. (Barry was one of the Brill Building giants; with partner Ellie Greenwich and working first for Phil Spector and then for the legendary girl-group label Red Bird, he wrote some of biggest songs of the 1960s—“Then He Kissed Me”, “Be My Baby”, “Da Doo Ron Ron”, “Doo Wah Diddy”, “Leader of the Pack”.) Though Barry and Kim would find their greatest success with the song “Sugar, Sugar”, which they wrote for cartoon bubblegum “band” the Archies, their albums together (How’d We Ever Get This Way, Rainbow Ride, and Baby I Love You) all yielded minor hits and all remain extremely listenable examples of late-1960s AM pop.
The album cover for Kim’s first and strongest record, How’d We Ever Get This Way, features a dandyish Kim sitting on a portable stool with a shaggy dog in what looks to be Central Park. This might lead one to expect something more whimsical, on the order of foppish English songwriter Peter Sarstedt of “Where Do You Go To ( My Lovely)?” fame, but despite a similar reedy, occasionally breathy tenor voice, there’s no mincing cleverness about Kim. Instead, on this album he works the same territory as Tommy James and the Shondells (whose first hit, incidentally, was Barry and Greenwich’s “Hanky Panky”). As you’d expect from bubblegum masters like Kim and Barry, the material is made unambiguously to please, with familiar, catchy melodies, short verses, and big payoff choruses. Nothing complicated or challenging, just well-crafted and well-arranged songs that revel in their professionalism. The first single, the jangly title track, epitomizes Kim and Barry’s clean, stripped-down approach—strummed acoustic guitar, sparse, bouncy bass runs, minimalist piano and xylophone fills, percussion made up mainly of hand claps and shaken tambourine. Nothing is permitted to clutter the hook, which comes in the form of a sha-la-la chorus after the title refrain. “Ordinary Kind of Girl” showcases Kim’s characteristically mellow and guileless love-ballad style; his earnestness is never unctuous, perhaps because he never strains to sound urgent or intense the way someone like Diamond or Tom Jones would. Because of Kim’s restraint, he never sounds maudlin or false.
For such an unabashedly commercial album, How’d We Ever Get This Way has a few unexpected wrinkles: the surprisingly dark “Just Like Your Shadow”—sort of a wannabe “Solitary Man”—conveys real desperation in its “fade away” refrain, highlighting Kim’s most distinctive feature at this point in his career: his ability to sound vulnerable without sounding maudlin and without ever blustering. “Shoot ‘Em Up Baby”, the album’s superlative second single, has a non sequitur chorus that seems to invite drug-related interpretations. The closer, “Resurrection”, which clocks in at over four minutes—an eternity by Kim’s standards—manages to employ dramatic pauses, an ominously pounding floor tom, quirky tempo shifts, pulsing string orchestrations, and hospital-room pathos without seeming excessive or corny.
Perhaps stung by the accusations about “Shoot ‘Em Up Baby”, the following album opened up with a title track that implicitly rejected psychedelia (“I ain’t takin’ no rainbow ride with you”), even while the songs borrow some of its motifs—this is Kim’s Crimson and Clover. All in all, Rainbow Ride has some heavier arrangements, with some fuzzed-up guitars, wah-wah, sitar riffs, and phase effects, but its still commercial pop—you’re certainly not going to mistake it for Spooky Tooth. Whereas Kim’s first album was filled with Barry-Kim compositions, Rainbow Ride predominantly consists of solo compositions, which, combined with the forced flower-power affect, leads to underwhelming, unmemorable songs. “I Want You” is generic and underwritten, and tracks like “Nobody’s Ever Going Anywhere” and “Baby While You’re Young” seem to meander in search of hooks, taking forever to finally fade out. “I Found Her” seems an approximation of Help-period Lennon, “Mr. Music Man” evokes the baroque pop of the Merry-Go-Round or the Left Banke, and the Everly Brothers cover “I Wonder If I Care as Much” stays fairly true to the original, with Kim harmonizing with himself. The best songs are the Barry-Kim collaborations which close the disc, the Nilssonesque “Gee Girl” and “To Be Continued”, a slow-building semi-scat takeoff on “Spanish Harlem”.
For the third album, Kim and Barry tried a different and far more successful approach, eschewing the trendy sonic effects (save for the Simon game noises on “I Got to Know”) and taking on a series familiar covers, including Barry’s own “Baby I Love You”, which became Kim’s biggest hit before “Rock Me Gently”. Kim’s languid vocals perfectly suit the lyrics while balancing the hyper guitar strumming, and a brief but potent organ break adroitly completes the arrangement. But what makes the song brilliant is Kim’s stuttering “C’mon baby n-n-n-n-n-now” at the end of the choruses. (It’s such a good hook, he recycles it in “So Good Together”.) This was the kind of song that, when it came on the oldies station, made car trips feel serendipitous. Kim’s lounge versions of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “This Guy’s in Love With You” are less revelatory, but serviceable. His reimagining of “If I Were a Carpenter” removes all its ponderousness, inserting a peppy horn break and another laconic vocal take—he almost sounds a bit indifferent toward the girl he’s asking to have his baby, a little pessimistic about the whole thing—until he kicks in the “would you, would you, would you” between each verse, which abruptly and thrillingly shifts the emotional mood. Far less ambivalent is the ebullient “Let’s Get Married”, which bubbles with impatience and uses a shift to double time to good effect. Throughout the record, Kim works in the higher reaches of his register, effortlessly achieving the yearning appeal that Alex Chilton seemed to be shooting for at the time, and “Walkin’ My La De Da” (which sounds nothing like the title would suggest) and “I’ll Be Lovin’ You” evoke an idea of what a softer, bubblegum Big Star might have sounded like.
Andy Kim, recorded after he split with Barry, is Kim’s attempt to make a “serious” singer-songwriter album, along the lines of Diamond’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Tommy James’s Christian of the World, or most accurately, Lou Christie’s Paint America Love. Here, Kim makes up for all the missing bombast from the previous albums, yielding a song cycle every bit as embarrassing as it is ambitious. It opens portentously with a “Prologue” where Kim defiantly proclaims his right to take this step: “Don’t say that I can’t because I can / Don’t say that I won’t because I will / And don’t tell me it’s a dream because dreams are the children of my mind”. From here the album launches into “Who Has the Answers?”, which wonders about the existence of God and advocates some fortifying prayer. The rest of the songs are equally ponderous, over-orchestrated dirges with clumsy verbose lyrics and lots of gospel-style backing vocals. The feminist-baiting “All in the Name of Steinem” is not a bright spot.
After this misstep, Kim would anticipate Peter Gabriel’s favorite trick and release another eponymous album on a different record label, garner a number-one hit, and then go underground for nearly a decade. He resurfaced in the 1980s and, in an attempt to resurrect himself as an Englebert Humperdinck-type entertainer, released a few albums under a pseudonym, Baron Longfellow. None of this should be held against his early albums, however, which remain charming and unpretentious examples of professional pop-music making, music so comfortably commercial from the outset that it couldn’t even have begun to consider itself compromised.