A recurring feature in which I look at something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to clearly state five reasons why I like it.
Today’s subject: First album by New York City-based baroque-pop quintet. Released February 1967. Spawned — or, perhaps, collected — two Top 20 singles (both of them mentioned in the album title, but more on that anon.) Peaked at No. 67 on the Billboard album charts.
And here’s why I like it:
1. Long, long, long. Of all the rock bands in all the gin joints in all the world, few have ever captured the sound and feel of longing quite as well as the Left Banke.
Both of their big hits (did I mention they’re both in the album title?) deal with a young man trying none too successfully to clear his mind of a departed but still revered young woman.
“Walk Away Renee” was the bigger hit. I acknowledge a certain genius at work there, but I’ve always found the song a little too weepy, too delicate and perhaps too string-sodden to become a real favorite.
“Pretty Ballerina,” on the other hand, is gentle and heartwrenching and mesmeric.
Unlike the narrator of “Renee,” who seems to be coming to terms with Renee’s departure, the narrator here still seems under a spell. He hasn’t gotten over the pretty ballerina, and he doesn’t seem to know a way out; we can’t be sure how long she’s been gone, but at the end of the song, he’s still closing his eyes and seeing her.
“I called her yesterday / It should have been tomorrow” captures romantic desire about as well as anybody ever has in nine words, too.
2. The non-hit. After leading off with “Pretty Ballerina,” the album shifts gears, going uptempo — though no less emotionally complicated — with “She May Call You Up Tonight.”
It’s another dose of gorgeous, chiming, regretful pop, with ingenious one-note high harmony on the chorus.
The lyric, meanwhile, is half-sketched in the classic tradition. We learn neither the roots of the situation nor its resolution; we get only a snapshot, a snatch of conversation, to work from.
Wiki says the song peaked at No. 120 on the singles charts (do they even go that low?), which can only be interpreted as a stunning gap in taste among American pop listeners.
The invaluable ARSA database tells us that “She May Call You Up Tonight” bordered on hit status in Oxnard, California, for much of July 1967. A feather in Oxnard’s cap. Forsooth!
3. Uneasy bedfellows. When I learned about the Left Banke’s reputation as a “baroque-pop” band, I kind of put them on a pedestal of lofty velvet-parlor artiness.
But until I heard the record, it never occurred to me that they were twentysomethings in the Sixties writing songs for teens.
Which means all the harpsichord flourishes and oboe solos coexist with rockheaded lyrics about saying goodbye to that Sixties archetype, the No-Good Girl. (“I’ve got to make you see, you’re not the girl for me / And I will prove it to you / So that you will see.”)
The clash is most delicious on “Evening Gown,” in which a bouncy, jingling harpsichord riff meets a Nuggets-raw vocal about a young lady dressed for a night at the cotillion.
The third verse ends with an open-throated “WHAAAAAOOOOOOOWWWWW!” worthy of the Chocolate Watch Band, the Troggs or some other knuckle-dragging garage-punk outfit. It’s great.
(There’s a totally random YouTube video that sets the song to some sort of animated asylum fantasy; I suggest cueing up the video and then doing something in another browser while the song plays.)
4. Stylistic pioneers. Sure, the garage-pop elements of the record took me by surprise.
But I was even more slack-jawed to come across “What Do You Know,” a straight-ahead country-rock tune that anticipates most of what Buffalo Springfield ever did.
(For maximum stylistic dissonance, “What Do You Know” is placed directly after the epic baroque ballad “Walk Away Renee” at the start of Side Two.)
It’s an OK song but not tremendously memorable, truth be told. It’s not the absolute first in its field either — the Byrds did this sort of thing earlier, as did the Beatles when they cut “Act Naturally.”
And whether an antecedent of country-rock is something to celebrate or something to revile is up to you, the listener.
I was just surprised the Left Banke went down that particular avenue at all, especially given they were there before a lot of other bands.
5. Just the hits, ma’am. In 1966-67, bands like the Beatles, Beach Boys and Rolling Stones were starting to expand the possibilities of the album title, coining wry puns (Revolver) and outright non sequiturs (Between the Buttons) that had little to do with anything on the record.
But less influential or popular bands were still stuck with whatever album title the record label coughed out. And often, the title of the big hit or hits was the obvious choice.
And so, we have an album title whose unimaginative, move-’em-out bluntness is just as much a remnant of its time as the swirling string arrangements on the vinyl.
I wonder what the guys in the band might have called the album, if they’d had a choice.