Thursday, June 2, 2011

Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina - The Left Banke

Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina
The Left Banke
Smash MGS 27088

The Left Banke did not invent chamber pop but I think there is little doubt that this is the definitive chamber pop album (or as the liner notes label it, "baroque" pop.)  I think its only real competition would be the Zombie's "Odessey and Oracle" and this one came first.  1967 was the greatest year in pop music in my opinion, so many wonderful albums came out that year, but I would assert that of all those albums, this one is among the freshest and least dated.  It has influenced countless modern indie rock bands from Belle and Sebastian to the Ladybug Transistor and I think it is just as relevant and meaningful now as the day it was issued.  The album begins with my favorite of all their songs, "Pretty Ballerina."  The song is driven by a hypnotic piano line by Michael Brown supplemented by the drone of a tasteful string arrangement and a nice oboe solo.  Steve Martin's delicate and tender vocal helps make this one of the most beautiful songs of its era.  It is followed by "She May Call You Up Tonight" which sticks to conventional rock instrumentation, but the interplay between Brown's piano and the jangly folk-rock style guitar has a baroque feel.  The song features some stunning vocal harmonies singing the memorable lyrics of jealousy and unrequited love.  With both a lute and a harpsichord, the baroque sound is heavy on the extraordinary "Barterers and Their Wives."  This courtly song's lyrics attacking businessmen are gorgeously sung by Martin, George Cameron and Tom Finn.  It demonstrates how distinctive and unique the group's music was.  "I've Got Something On My Mind" continues in the same vein with a harpsichord and strings supporting another delicate vocal of frustrated romance.  Brown switches to a clavinet for "Let Go Of You Girl" and group members, Rick Brand, Cameron and Finn are finally allowed to play after being replaced by session men for most of the album.  It is the only song on the album that features the band pictured on the cover.  It is a simple pop song with banal lyrics, but the sophisticated vocals and the clavinet raise it to a higher level.  Brown uses both an electric piano and a harpsichord on the rollicking and sexy "Evening Gown" which demonstates that Martin was also adept at rocking out.  It may be the hardest rocking song ever to mention butlers, parlor doors and evening gowns and contradicts the stereotype that the Left Banke was a wimpy band.  Side two kicks off with the song that is primarily responsible for that wimpy stereotype, the eternal classic "Walk Away Renee."  Dominated by strings and harpsichord with a flute solo, the song's weepy lyrics of heartbreak and unrequited love are sung in high quavering vocals, it is both a quintessential landmark for chamber pop and twee indie rock.  If you have a problem with that, this is not the blog for you.  I worship this song and all it has wrought.  "What Do You Know" takes a very different direction.  It is country rock featuring a rare lead vocal by Michael Brown, it is one of the odder songs in the Left Banke catalog.  It is not all that great, but it is indicative of the band's versatility.  The opening strings of "Shadows Breaking Over My Head" signal a return to normalcy.  This is one of the prettiest and most haunting songs on the album.  "I Haven't Got the Nerve" is the only song not written by Michael Brown on the album, it was written by George Cameron and Steve Martin and they share the lead vocal as well.  Brown plays a mambo/samba style riff on the harpsichord which works surprisingly well.  The record ends with "Lazy Day" which features original group guitarist Jeff Winfield playing some stinging fuzz guitar, no chamber pop here, this is as close as the Left Banke got to playing straight ahead rock and roll.  This is a great record, one of my all time faves.  Recommended to lovelorn music students.

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