The first track on Legacy Recordings’ new double-disc anthology The Essential Eric Carmen (Arista/Legacy 88883745522) is titled, appropriately enough, “Get the Message.” And the message relayed by its 30 nuggets comes through loud and clear: whether as power pop prince, classically-inspired MOR balladeer or nostalgic yet contemporary eighties rocker, Eric Carmen had the goods.
Young lust never sounded as thrilling, as exuberant, or as pretty as it did in the hands of The Raspberries. Over the course of just four albums released between 1972 and 1974, each one of which is represented here, the band positioned itself as legitimate heirs to the thrones of The Beatles, The Beach Boys and The Byrds. With jangly guitars, alternately swaggering and yearning vocals, full-bodied harmonies, unerring melodic instinct and plenty of youthful abandon, the mod four-man group defined “power pop” on songs like “Go All the Way,” “I Wanna Be with You” and “Let’s Pretend.” As singer, guitarist/bassist and songwriter, Carmen provided the band – also featuring guitarist Wally Bryson, drummer Jim Bonfanti and guitarist/bassist Dave Smalley – with three-minute opuses that crackled with the spirit of FM and the sound of AM. The roots of The Raspberries are vividly apparent on “Get the Message” from Carmen and Bryson’s pre-Raspberries band Cyrus Erie, which makes its CD debut here. Just listen to those cries of “Come on!” in the catchy track’s first twenty seconds!
Carmen made the leap to solo artist with his self-titled 1975 Arista album, the first of two Eric Carmen LPs. Retaining the services of Raspberries producer Jimmy Ienner, the bright, brash “Sunrise” didn’t stray too far from the band’s blueprint, but the album’s two major hit singles certainly did. “All By Myself” and “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again” both drew on melodies of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), giving the late composer two hit records more than three decades after his death. The oft-covered “All by Myself,” which is heard here in its full 7+-minute album version, certainly showcased Carmen at his most bombastic. But its supremely melancholy lyric and majestic melody by both Carmen and Rachmaninoff created a striking orchestral-pop amalgam that stands among the singer-songwriter’s best works. “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again” has an equally downbeat lyric, but is married to the purely irresistible Rachmaninoff chorus, rendered in ironically bouncy style. It’s wistful but never mawkish, and it’s easy to see why both “Never Gonna Fall” and “All by Myself” garnered enough attention to be performed in concert by no less an eminent interpreter than Frank Sinatra himself. (Coincidentally, Arista Records had a third hit single in 1975 based on a classical theme: Barry Manilow’s Top 10 “Could It Be Magic.”)
In addition to the Cyrus Erie track, The Essential serves up rarities in the form of two previously unreleased selections from New York’s fabled Bottom Line. Carmen revived The Raspberries’ “Starting Over,” and his intimate performance brought his sophisticated songcraft to the fore. The live version of Eric Carmen track “That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll” is looser and more boisterous, and both tracks make a case that the entire concert should be issued imminently.
After the jump, there’s plenty more on Eric’s Essential!
While perusing The Essential, you might be shocked to realize just how small Carmen’s discography is, totaling just six solo albums between 1975’s Eric Carmen and 1997’s Winter Dreams (reissued in 2000 as I Was Born to Love You). Tracks from every one of those albums save Winter Dreams have made the cut here. There’s great musical continuity among Carmen’s four Arista albums; as the artist admits in his terrifically entertaining track-by-track liner notes, the label had established him as a “romantic balladeer.” Indeed, most of his music was dealing with universal themes of love and loss. But if that description sold short the muscular rocker of The Raspberries, there’s no denying the power of songs like the sprawling “Run Away” or the aching “Boats Against the Current.” The latter song, with its title derived from a line in The Great Gatsby, provided the title for Carmen’s second Arista LP. The bold, theatrical rocker “Marathon Man” off the same album boasts background vocals from The Guess Who’s Burton Cummings, and “She Did It” has Bruce Johnston of The Beach Boys lending his identifiable sound, too. In fact, the infectious track is one of the best Beach Boys recordings that the band never made and stands head-and-shoulders with the group’s own work at the time. Studio mainstay Andrew Gold lends prominent guitar to the track, and Toto’s ubiquitous Jeff Porcaro sat in on drums, making for an all-star collaboration. Carmen writes that the song’s orchestration was inspired by Philadelphia soul, but it ended up far more Brian Wilson than Thom Bell – and all Eric Carmen.
The title track of 1978’s Change of Heart represented an even bigger shift into L.A. blue-eyed soul-pop with Carmen supported by a “Who’s who” including Johnston, Porcaro, Cummings, Curt Boettcher (The Association, Sagittarius), Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar, Russ Kunkel, Craig Doerge, Leland Sklar and Paulinho da Costa. Of the four tracks from the LP here, “Hey Deanie” (already a hit single for Shaun Cassidy) is a return to Carmen’s power pop period with a strong dose of early rock-and-roll nostalgia, and “Desperate Fools” is one of his most heartfelt, personal ballads. “Someday,” inspired by Carmen’s love of the classic records created by Lesley Gore, Quincy Jones and Claus Ogerman, has another Beach Boys vibe largely thanks to Johnston and Boettcher’s vocals.
The Essential is another opportunity to revisit lesser-known songs like the Wall of Sound homage “It Hurts Too Much” or “Tonight You’re Mine” with Elton John’s longtime guitarist Davey Johnstone and Vanilla Fudge’s Carmine Appice fronting a bagpipe-driven (!) rocker. Carmen wails some of his most aggressive, full-throated vocals on these. Only one track has been reprised from the Bob Gaudio-helmed Eric Carmen album of 1984, the throwback orchestra-and-piano ballad “The Way We Used to Be.” Oddly, neither of the album’s singles – the Top 40 hit “I Wanna Hear It from Your Lips” or Top 100 follow-up “I’m Through with Love” – appear here.
It’s a testament to Carmen’s durability that he reemerged as a Top 10 hitmaker with a quintessentially 1980s song for a movie set in the 1960s (John DeNicola and Franke Previte’s “Hungry Eyes” for 1987’s Dirty Dancing, of course) and then went to Top 5 Pop/No. 1 A.C. with a 1960s-referencing song in the 1980s (“Make Me Lose Control,” co-written by Carmen and Dean Pitchford). Regardless of which style he recorded in, Carmen stayed true to his pop sensibility and romanticism, even when that sound wasn’t in fashion. Yet the songwriter was all but silent for a period of time; there’s no music here between 1988 and 2013 save a live “Ecstasy” with the reunited Raspberries circa 2005. The most recent track on The Essential Eric Carmen is “Brand New Year,” which makes its CD debut. Featuring Carmen supported by Jeffrey Foskett, Darian Sahanaja, Nick Walusko and Mike D’Amico of Brian Wilson’s band, it was released online on Christmas Eve 2013. It’s vintage Carmen – lush, gorgeous and memorably melodic – and also a bit more warmly optimistic than those famous early hits.
“Brand New Day” is the ideal closer to this compilation, hopefully auguring for more new music from Eric Carmen. But even if Carmen doesn’t return to the recording studio, The Essential – as expertly produced by Timothy J. Smith, superbly remastered by Mark Wilder and featuring the artist’s own notes – is one-stop shopping for some of the most vivacious and memorable pop of the past four-plus decades.