After listening to The Left Banke's two original albums, just reissued by Sundazed, I have only one question: what took so long?
The group's recorded output was collected back in 1992 by Mercury on There's Gonna Be A Storm: The Complete Recordings 1966-1969. Besides getting my vote for Best Rhino Album Not Actually Produced By Rhino (Bill Inglot produced and Andrew Sandoval annotated...'nuff said!), the single disc compilation offers a remarkable view of the group that soared with 1966's "Walk Away Renee" and then crashed in a big way. But Sundazed's remasters of 1967's Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina (SC 6276/LP 5375) and its 1968 follow-up, The Left Banke Too (SC 6277/LP 5376), are the first CD appearances of these two albums in their original album configurations. (They're also available on LP.) Again, friends: what took so long? But no matter. They're here now, and they're essential listening for any fans of that heady time in music when studio experimentation was at a high - along with certain consciousnesses! - and anything was possible.
The Left Banke's oeuvre has most often been described as "baroque pop" or "baroque rock." Sure enough, the debut album's "Barterers and their Wives," with its prominent harpsichord, is a quintessential example of those genres. Chief songwriter and classically trained pianist Michael Brown, one fourth of The Left Banke, pushed the envelope with his intricate ballads. Most of them were arranged by John Abbott, including the two hit singles that were released in advance of the LP and gave the album its title. "Pretty Ballerina" utilizes violin, cello and oboe on a stunning track that supports Steve Martin-Caro's haunting lead vocal. "Just close your eyes and she'll be there..." But the one that started it all, "Walk Away Renee," was the perfect synthesis of the baroque style and commercial pop sensibility. Its wistful, resigned lyric is set to a melody with a big sing-along chorus - the soul lurking underneath was quickly discovered by the Four Tops - and the three-part harmony (a Left Banke specialty thanks to Martin-Caro, bassist/guitarist Tom Finn and percussionist George Cameron) practically blended into one voice on the chorus. Needless to say, it sounded perfect coming out of an AM radio! The band didn't count, however, on the success of "Renee" leading to a demand for live performances. The Left Banke in concert was heavily reliant on cover versions; they simply couldn't replicate the complex arrangements live!
Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina is far from the work of one-trick ponies, though. Read on after the jump!
"She May Call You Up Tonight" is driving, straight-ahead pop and "What Do You Know," with a rare vocal by songwriter Brown, has a pronounced country flavor and a laconic, rag-tag folk-rock jangle. "Evening Gown" is that rare animal, a garage "nugget" that utilizes an electric harpsichord! On this propulsive rocker, Martin-Caro wails and shouts over guitar provided by Chip Taylor's frequent collaborator, Al Gorgoni.
"I Haven't Got the Nerve" is the only track on the LP written with no Brown involvement. Like "Renee" it features unusual instrumentation but this time it's in service of a less ambitious but still melodic song. It's a British Invasion-esque tune with George Cameron sharing the lead vocal with Martin-Caro. For a New York group, the Beatles-esque vocal influence is also apparent on "Lazy Day" which also boasts an edgy fuzz guitar by Jeff Winfield, who had a brief stint as a member of the band and was present for many early live dates.
Despite these sweet sounds, The Left Banke was plagued by a revolving door of personnel. Harry Lookofsky, accomplished violinist and father to Michael Brown, acted as the group's manager/svengali, instigating a number of changes that may have jeopardized the group's chances at further success. He dismissed Steve and Bill Jerome, who produced the two hit singles, and Winfield was replaced by Rick Brand. Martin-Caro, Cameron and Finn found themselves pitted against Lookofsky and Brown. Both onstage and off, The Left Banke was in a state of flux.
After the album's release, Brown teamed with Bert Sommer to record the single "Ivy, Ivy" b/w "And Suddenly." Unbeknownst to the other three band members, he saw fit to release the April 1967 single under the Left Banke name on the band's label, Smash. This didn't sit well with Martin-Caro, Finn and Cameron, and they threatened legal action. Smash abandoned promotion for the single but the seeds of confusion had already been planted by the two competing "groups." A brief reunion of the entire quartet yielded two songs written by Brown and Tom Feher, "Desiree" and "In the Morning Light," with New York session players picking up the instrumental slack. "Desiree" was released as a single, but it only got as far as No. 98 on the Billboard pop chart. ("In the Morning Light" would have to wait until the release of Too to appear.)
Following the fracas, Brand also exited The Left Banke, leaving Finn, Cameron and Martin-Caro as a trio. Sessions continued, resulting first in the single "Dark is the Bark" b/w "My Friend Today," produced by Artie Schroeck and issued in June 1968. Despite its failure, Smash pressed on, and turned to Paul Leka, the bubblegum master behind the Lemon Pipers' "Green Tambourine," for the single "Goodbye Holly" b/w "Sing Little Bird Sing" and an accompanying album. Like that single, The Left Banke Too was issued in November 1968. The album title might well have been a comment about the competing factions of the group: "We're the Left Banke, too!"
The four previously released sides were included on the album, which has a much less consistent feel than its predecessor. The harpsichord isn't as prominent, and strings dominate Leka's grandiose orchestrations, threatening to overwhelm songs like the delicate "Sing Little Bird Sing." The standout may be one of the two Brown leftovers, "In the Morning Light." This effervescent track which backed "Desiree" probably should have been the A-side, with its subtle horn flourishes and radio-ready sound. But "Desiree," heard in mono on the LP, may be the most ambitious, sweeping track ever recorded by the Left Banke. Still, it lacks the effortless melodic thrust of "Renee" or its own B-side. Tom Feher's bright "Goodbye Holly" is a jangly pop confection, and also deserved more recognition from radio and the charts.
If lacking a "Walk Away Renee" or a "Pretty Ballerina," there's still plenty on Too that's captivating. Crank up "Nice to See You" and you might notice a familiar voice. Steve Tallarico, the future Steven Tyler, contributed background vocals to this track and two others (the dreamy, elegiac "Dark is the Bark" and "My Friend Today") in his days as a New York session singer. "Nice to See You" should appeal to fans of Badfinger or early Bee Gees, and it sits comfortably alongside Leka's other productions. In fact, the six Leka songs that begin the album (all of the LP's Side One plus the first song on Side Two) play like a mini-suite.
Sound effects open "Nice to See You" and close "Give the Man a Hand," a Marvin Potocki song that shows off the trio's fantastic harmonies. The group was vocally versatile; check out the Kinks-esque interplay from Cameron and Martin-Caro on the dark "Bryant Hotel." Leka plays an atmospheric tack piano on the song, while the briefly-returned Rick Brand is heard on 5-string banjo. Another moody cut, "There's Gonna Be A Storm," gave the Mercury compilation its title. It's an ominous but hypnotic recording that's slightly reminiscent of Badfinger at its best.
After The Left Banke Too was roundly ignored, Brown and Martin-Caro joined together in 1969 for one more single released under the band's name, "Myrah" b/w "Pedestal." Two years later, the original quartet recorded two more songs ("Love Songs in the Night" and "Two By Two") released under Brown's name, and there have been sporadic reunions of various members since. The most recent was a well-received stand at New York's Joe Pub in March with Finn and Cameron performing as The Left Banke.
Sundazed's Bob Irwin of course handles the mastering chores for both titles, and he's done a splendid job utilizing the original stereo master tapes. The eight-page booklets aren't lavish but they contain the essentials: informative and entertaining essays by Scott Schinder, reproduction of the album front and back covers, full musician credits, great, full-color photographs and other artwork elements. The Smash labels are a wonderful touch. The CDs are housed in digipaks, and best of all, Sundazed has included sleeves to protect the discs from scratching and damage.
Although every track on both CDs was included on There's Gonna Be A Storm, plus five bonuses, the Sundazed releases are essential for retaining the original album sequences in newly-sparkling sound. I wouldn't walk away from these lovingly produced reissues...after all, The Left Banke just might fade into the ether, again.