The Left Banke are one of those celebrated 1960s bands shrouded in mystery because of the quality and scarcity of their work. Critics commonly include the band’s two biggest hit singles, “Walk Away Renee” and “Pretty Ballerina”, as among the best songs of that turbulent decade. These songs have been successfully covered by everyone from the Four Tops to Alice Cooper to John Mellencamp to Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. The Left Banke only released two albums before breaking up but are highly regarded as the inventors of baroque pop, a genre marked by the beauty and sophistication of the music. One can hear their influence in contemporary acts like Belle & Sebastian and other twee bands that aim to create sentimental, sweet music from a youthful perspective.
Founder Michael Brown left the Left Banke before their second album in 1968, but in 1978 three of its original members (Steve Martin Caro, Tom Finn, and George Cameron) got together and tried to recapture the magic. These tracks didn’t see the light of day until 1986—in the US as Strangers on a Train and in the UK as Voices Calling. Despite the hunger for more Left Banke albums, the results didn’t generate much response. While the music had its chams, nothing was as good as their early work on the record.
Part of the problem was the band had matured and sounded it. The Left Banke of the 1960s sounded like melodramatic teenagers who intensely felt the pain and pleasures of young love. The 1970s group offered a more nostalgic perspective. There is a difference between experiencing immediate emotions and reflecting on past ones. The ten songs from the 1978 disc remind one of how groups like Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons went from having hits like “Sherry” and “Walk Like a Man” to “December 1963” and “Grease”. The pep and innocence of the original hits were replaced by the older but wiser protagonists. Something precious was lost, but this doesn’t make the music bad.
Indeed, cuts like “And One Day” and “Yesterday’s Love” reveal vocalist Caro’s ability to capture how the memory of love can still touch the heart in the present. The songs may not convey the freshness of feelings as much as the power of early love to affect someone years later. “You try living with the pain,” Caro sings on “You Say”, and indeed he captures how reflecting on past love that doesn’t end well can hurt as much in the present as it did back then.
The story doesn’t end there. In 2001, Brown reconnected with Caro. They recorded several new tracks Brown had written (he did not compose any on the 1978 release) whose formality more closely resembled that of early Left Banke songs. There are string sections, sweeping piano lines, and such that add a demure quality to the material, especially on tracks like “Airborne” and “Meet Me in the Moonlight”. The material may not be as self-consciously decorous as the original Left Banke in the 1960s, but there is a clear attempt to invoke past beauty.
This new compilation features a lost and legendary band trying to rediscover their early magic with mixed results. They may have been unable to recreate the heights of their early years any more than an aging star athlete trying to achieve what once came easily. That doesn’t mean there was nothing left in the tank, but this album would primarily be of interest to those fans of the band’s glory years.