Friday, June 24, 2011

Review: The Left Banke Collection

The Left Banke was the greatest American band of the ‘60s to only manage one major (and one minor) hit. Much of that greatness rests on the shoulders of those two top-twenty singles, and “Walk Away Renee” and “Pretty Ballerina” haven’t lost an iota of their abilities to jerk tears and yank heartstrings. Yet this assortment of New York anglophiles created much more exquisitely arranged, plaintively crooned baroque pop, as evidenced by their two albums. Released in 1967, Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina was hardly the sum of its two title hits. Aside from a country number sung in weedy strains by writer, keyboardist, and resident boy-genius Michael Brown, each track on the record is a testament to the group’s beauty. Brown’s lovely songs and gorgeous arrangements— harpsichord and classical strings blended with traditional rock instruments (mostly played by session musicians)— are completed with the tearful tones of singer Steve Martin, who cranks up the pain even when rocking out on stuff like “She May Call You Up Tonight”, “Evening Gown”, and “I Haven’t Got the Nerve”.

Michael Brown departed after ’67, leaving the band in the hands of Martin, Tom Finn, and George Cameron. Although The Left Banke Too didn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor, the guys did a pretty amazing job of approximating Brown’s melancholy pop. “Dark Is the Bark” and “My Friend Today”, both featuring vocals by a young Steven Tyler, are as fine as anything on the first album. The album’s ace-in-the-hole, and arguably the best thing The Left Banke ever recorded, is “Desiree”, a one-off reunion with Brown that sets the band’s trademark angst against a symphony of vertigo-inducing riffs.

The Left Banke’s two albums have been out of print since their original vinyl runs. Their music only made it to CD on There’s Gonna Be a Storm, which jostled the track line-ups of those albums while adding several rather good singles. With that anthology out of print for many years, The Left Banke’s wonderful body of work was in desperate need of reissue. Sundazed has stepped in nicely by issuing Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina and The Left Banke Too on CD for the first time ever, complete with gatefold, mini-L.P. jackets, and fresh liner notes. The music sounds warmer and punchier than it did on There’s Gonna Be a Storm. Certain elements leap out of the mix more than they did on that anthology, such as the strings on “Pretty Ballerina”. Both of The Left Banke's albums are essential for ‘60s pop aficionados, as well as fans of mopey later day groups like The Smiths and Belle and Sebastian.

Get Walk Away Renée/Pretty Ballerina and The Left Banke Too at Amazon.com.
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