In 2006, does anything that happens on TV’s Will & Grace hold any claim to cultural significance? Because if it does, then Hall & Oates’ recent self-parodying appearance on the show, solidified a development that has to be shocking for even the most hardcore ’80s apologists: Hall & Oates are cool again. That’s right — after years of functioning as little more than a by-word for “cheesy background vocals” and providing fodder for “superfluous sidemen” jokes, it’s officially okay, once again, to admit that you like them (although you shouldn’t do so, say, on Interpol’s message board). Need proof? Check the blogs.
This spiffy new re-issue of the duo’s 1983 greatest hits collection shows that there was no reason for H&O fans to stay in the closet for so long. Strip away the nostalgia and what’s left is the songs. And, for quite a while there, man could these guys write ’em. And play ’em, too. Their “blue-eyed soul” became more streamlined over a prolonged, intermittently successful genesis (would any major label today wait through several flop albums like RCA did?). For some fans, at their apex Hall & Oates were too clinical, too calculating, too cold. But that didn’t really become a liability until after Rock ‘N Soul Part 1 was released. In the long run, the airtight production and sharp arrangements have left the material sounding less dated than you’d expect.
Basically, you have two periods represented here. Phase One is the handful of songs from the aforementioned salad says. You can almost hear the tiny royalty checks and dingy nightclub gigs emanating from the mellow, soulful sadness of “Sara Smile” and “She’s Gone”. On the latter, especially, Hall’s mumbling portrays tired’n’wasted so well that the emoting at the end is a genuine catharsis. “Rich Girl” takes some confidence from those first two hits and turns it into a smooth swagger; in the age of Paris Hilton, could the song’s message be any more relevant? It’s strength is that it stops short of misogyny; if you listen carefully, you’ll find it’s actually a call to self-empowerment that’s much more effective than the latest Pink has to offer. Oh, and even with the schmaltzy strings, it sounds great on the radio.
While “Rich Girl” topped the charts, these modest yet timeless songs hardly suggest the world-beating that’s to come. Enter Phase Two: hit after hit after hit. “Kiss On My List” sets the template: Hall’s electronic piano keeping rhythm, his voice butter but never cloying, a simple yet smart lyric, hooks galore, and the harmonic interplay of the backing vocals — a technique picked up during Hall’s formative years as a session singer for Philly soul architects Gamble & Huff. If “Private Eyes” is a rewrite, it’s an irresistibly catchy rewrite of a song that everyone wanted to hear again, while “One On One” slows down the tempo and wallows in atmosphere. When before the sax solo Hall says, “That’s all you need to know now”, he’s right: These guys have written the book on soulful pop in the ’80s.
With the ’80s as the setting, synthesizers and drum machines are a given. What’s surprising in hindsight, however, is the ease and cunning with which Hall & Oates incorporated the technology into their sound. And nowhere is the result more sublime than “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)”. That Prince Paul and De La Soul found the song ripe for heavy sampling on their groundbreaking 3 Feet High and Rising was no accident; a quarter century after its release, the slinky bassline and pitter-pattering Roland CompuRhythm are still just plain badass. Nearly as good is the wound-up “Say it Isn’t So”, which stays just on the right side of the line between pop perfection and vapid professionalism. All of this is aided greatly by the duo’s crack ’80s-era band, the core of which went on to anchor Saturday Night Live.
In fact, only the sub-Tears for Fears pop psychology of “Adult Education”, which is lame despite the presence of Nile Rodgers, comes between Rock ‘N’ Soul Part 1 and a perfect rating. A few bonus tracks, especially a rockin’ cover of Mike Oldfield’s “Family Man”, only sweeten the package. This is the kind of guilty pleasure that there’s really no need to feel guilty about.