Guilty pleasures: Gino Vannelli, Michael Franks, Hall & Oates, Jeff Lorber

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by S. Victor Aaron

Guilty pleasures. Admit it, we’ve all got ’em when it comes to music.

For some time, now, I’ve been meaning to put a list together for everyone’s amusement. I was reminded of that half-serious promise I made to myself when I came across Rolling Stone Magazine’s back-handed compliment piece listing 25 “undisputed” guilty pleasure bands.

Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s Rolling Stone, for crissakes, but much like that infamous “100 Best Guitarists” list, they sure seem to know how to get a lively discussion going. For the record, I found all but one entry on that guilty pleasures list either guilty or pleasurable but not both, except for one.

So after carefully building up a reputation here (ha) over the last ten months, it all comes tumbling down here in one fell swoop. Behold my own guilty pleasures list:

1) Gino Vannelli

Why he gets scorn
Especially in the beginning, Toronto-based Vannelli wrote some incredibly cringe-inducing vapid lyrics, like “now don’t get paranoid, I ain’t a horny little mongoloid.” He also often over-emoted the hell out of his voice, like as if he forgot he was singing rock and was performing an opera instead (much later he did recognize that he was singing opera and put out a real opera record). And the heavy reliance on ARPs and Moogs gave his recordings shorter shelf lives than a fresh grouper left out on a sidewalk in July.

Over time, all these quirks were mitigated just enough to give him a #2 hit in 1978 with the sappy ballad “I Just Wanna Stop.” So Gino probably didn’t get all that widely criticized, because nobody noticed him much when he was more prone to show his bizarre side. Lucky him.

Why I dig him, anyway
Vannelli had some pretensions of being a soul-jazz inflected prog rocker before he eventually settled for just getting a few AM hits, but while he often failed in that pursuit, he came up with some interesting, melodic stuff anyway. “Where Am I Going” flashed some sophisticated arrangements and tempo changes, while “The Surest Things Can Change” has a sweet, melancholy vibe that proved the Italian Stallion of the North could come across sincerely if he just went light on the syrup. Plus, he didn’t skimp on the studio help; guys like Jay Graydon, Graham Lear, Ernie Watts and Jimmy Haslip provided the instrumentation, and it showed.

2) Michael Franks

Why he gets scorn
Like Gino, Franks is a pseudo-jazz crooner, singing silly, sappy love songs. You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs (eh, Sir Paul?). But at least Gino has gears in his voice. Franks goes at one speed: a dull monotone.

Why I dig him, anyway
Franks’ dull monotone singing can be appealing if it’s applied wisely to soft romantic songs—like Chet Baker did with his similarly thin warble—and it often was. What’s more, sometimes his compositions are so consciously silly they actually become charming. Part of the charm, though, was Franks clever use of double entendres that could sometimes do 1930’s country blues naughty boy Bo Carter proud. “Popsicle Toes” is a classic of bouncy, lightly naughty ditties. But where Vannelli brought in his fare share of noted sessionists, the credits list on Franks albums often read like Warren Zevon’s or Steely Dan’s: Joe Sample, Michael Brecker, Larry Carlton, David Sanborn, Wilton Felder, with Tommy LiPuma and Al Schmitt behind the boards…and that was all from his first release.

3) Heatwave

Why they get scorn
They were disco. Nuff said.

Why I dig ’em, anyway
Sometimes I think they got the disco label only because the word “boogie” got mentioned forty or fifty times on each of their dance numbers. Musically, they were a lot closer to Earth, Wind & Fire than the Village People. There were guys in the band who actually played instruments and they had good chops. And Rod Temperton’s songwriting (“Boogie Nights,” “Always & Forever,” “Groove Line”) was a couple of cuts above everyone else’s, whether you wanted to call it disco, R&B or funk.

This isn’t the first time I’ve raved on Heatwave, so I won’t go any further, here. Suffice to say, they managed to give disco a good name. That in itself is worthy of somebody’s lifetime achievement award, don’t you think?

4) Hall & Oates

This is the one act where I agree with Rolling Stone‘s list.

Why they get scorn
They ruled the pop world in the first half of the eighties. That doesn’t exactly carry the same weight as saying “Elton John ruled the pop world in the first half of the seventies.” And have you ever seen the album cover of their 1975 self-titled release? *shudder*

Why I dig ’em, anyway
Even as their music became increasingly bogged down by vintage cheesy synths, Sonar drums and other trendy production tricks of the time, the Philly soul element still managed to emerge from it—“One On One” is a prime example. If you listened closely enough, you’d find that John Oates was a better than average singer. Daryl Hall’s singing was simply outstanding, and you don’t have to listen closely at all to know that.

And if none of this convinces you, then I guess it’s time to pull out my trump card: these were the same guys who came up with Abandoned Luncheonette. That album alone bought them some serious cred. Sure, they might have since spent it all, but what the hell, the spending spree was mostly fun.

5) Jeff Lorber

Why he gets scorn
Lorber is a conservatory-trained fusion keyboardist, and sounds like it. Sure, he’s got chops galore, but none of them are his own. Mostly, he stole them from Chick Corea. He started out with jazz-funk, but now he’s a smooth jazz star. Another strike against him, unless you generally like that kind of music.

Oh, and he gave Kenny G(orelick) his big break. Thanks, Jeff.

Why I dig him, anyway
Lorber’s brand of funk-jazz, when he doesn’t dilute it with guest vocalists and banks of synthesizers, is straightforward and genuinely soulful. His keyboard licks are consistently concise and in the pocket. Even some of his latter smooth jazz recordings retain those attributes. But early albums like Lift Off and Water Sign are some of the finer examples of no-nonsense fusion I’ve come across. A lot like middle-period Return To Forever without the excesses. Perhaps Lorber did separate
himself a little bit from Corea after all, and in a good way.

So there you have it. There might be a few more guilty pleasures I didn’t put on the list, but I might’ve embarrassed myself enough already. I need to make amends and find a nice, arty record to review. Has anyone covered Tom Waits’ Bastards CD yet?

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron

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