For years and years, I avoided Hall & Oates because I assumed they were yacht rock. I was only vaguely aware of their songs and sound – actually the only song of theirs I really knew was their cover of “Jingle Bell Rock.” I became vaguely interested in Daryl Hall once I knew about his collaboration with Robert Fripp, but honestly I still didn’t care much.
What I learned from the previous album, the first I ever heard is that, though they are indeed a fairly typical blue-eyed soul act for the era – likely the blue-eyed soul act of the era – they are also weirdly quirky. There were a few tracks on Voices which really threw me for a loop. So I became at least a little bit intrigued.
Hall is clearly the better songwriter, in addition to the primary one. (He’s also clearly the better singer. Arguably one of the greats of his era.) But some of their songs inhabit this weird space where it’s clear they don’t just want to write soul songs. Some people oddly label their music of this era new wave, which I cannot agree with, but I understand why the confusion exists: some times they write just a bit too quirky to be classified as “soul” or AOR and they seem like they’re aware there’s a more interesting world out there.
I can’t say I love their aesthetic and I think that was always the thing that was going to get in the way. They are fairly aggressively contemporary on these records – not quite as bad as some but that it dates the music. Hall is credited, for example, with mandola and mandocello – can you distinguish when and where he plays them? I can’t. I do wish their slightly eccentric songwriting was reflected in their sound more than it is.
Despite that contemporary sound, the production is better than you might expect. It sounds of its era but not perilously so. I know many records from 1981 that sound worse. (But I really wish they could have used better keyboards, for example.)
All in all, though this is hardly my thing, I appreciate their distinct perspective, their slightly quirky approach and the fact that they clearly know how to write songs. I wish they had more of an edge, but I get that nobody else wants that.
PS Does “Tell Me What You Want” (one of the weirdest songs here) crib from “Spirit of the Radio”? I think it does.