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Class C

Main Category: Lush Pop
Also applicable: --------
Starting Period: The Psychedelic Years
Also active in: --------



Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of a Left Banke fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Left Banke fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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The Left Banke are forgotten in the public conscience, and this is in part due to their own lack of tenacity. Had they retained Michael Brown and went on to create even more records in the vein of their first, they might have achieved much greater fame, or, at least, build themselves a strong and lasting underground following, say, in some European country. Unfortunately, they pretty much achieved self-destruction within just a couple of years, and these weren't just any years, but the late Sixties - a period when the world was jam-packed with bands breaking boundaries and popping new genres and styles out of their fingers. Obviously, a band that only made one great album and one merely good one couldn't hope to compete under the circumstances, and thus, much like the Zombies in Britain, the Left Banke just fizzled away, only to be cherished by nostalgiacs and snobby record collectors.

And it's a darn shame, because The Left Banke is certainly a band whose value goes far over "collectionist". Out of the twenty-six Left Banke songs I've heard, only a few would sound "dated" (in the bad sense of the word) today - anybody who likes well-written, sentimental, emotion-filled, and brilliantly arranged pop would find the band a great addition to their collection. The Left Banke were innovators, and not the kind of innovators who create new ideas but don't understand how to make these ideas digestible for the general public - no, in addition to their innovations, they had true pop sensibility. This is all commercial, potentially-well-selling stuff; but it is also drenched with these guys' revolutionary ideas to boot.

The ideas in question were simple: add a classical flavour to the standard three-minute pop song. The movement, of course, was more European than American, yet the America-based Left Banke were among its earliest pioneers (then again, you might argue that New York, where the band was from, isn't really America - hey, it's got much stronger European ties than pretty much anything else in the US. But who cares anyway?). Child prodigy Michael Brown, his compositional skills and his graceful keyboard work were at the heart of the early Left Banke; he had a gift for crafty hooks and a gift for choosing the perfect instrumentation as well. And things started out fine for the band, with the hit single 'Walk Away Renee' making it to #5 in the charts in late 1966, even if it was boosted by a lot of promotion, supposedly hailing Brown as the second coming of Mozart or, at least, Brian Wilson's long-lost twin brother.

However, the band was soon torn apart with dissent and quarreling. Brown left soon after the debut album came out, then returned, then left again; deprived of his talents, the Left Banke struggled through a second record before calling it quits (they came together one more time in 1969 to release one more single, which I haven't heard). Apparently, the ties between the members were never that strong, and nobody really had a "vision" for the band's future except for, possibly, Brown. I guess we often forget what a goddamn hard business it must actually be to keep a band going together - and that only a minimal, minuscule percentage of bands actually survives more than a year or two of being together. Well, the Left Banke were not included in that percentage.

Funny enough, I can't even be sure that the Left Banke's influence on other bands has been anywhere near as great as is often stated. Their brand of "Baroque Pop", as it's been christened by many an expert, was really that - based more on the Mozartian style of music than on the sternness and majesty of Bach or the sturm und drang of Beethoven, the two much more obvious inspirations for the then-nascent art-rock and prog-rock movement. Another thing is that classical influence pretty soon hopped onto the realm of "serious" music - the one that relied on atmosphere, complexity, and technical prowess to a much stronger degree than on poppy hooks, whereas true "pop" music continued to follow the Beatlesque model in its reliance on a guitar-based, simple sound over anything else.

This makes The Left Banke a pretty unique band in its own rights. Again, the closest analogy would be the Zombies, I guess, but even the Zombies usually went for a much simpler approach than these guys. And the Beach Boys didn't have a classically trained master-musician among them, so they don't qualify either. In other words, you must try these guys out and blow the dust of history off their output, and I'm not calling on you to do so merely from a biased position of a Sixties aficionado (although, of course, Sixties aficionados simply can't allow themselves the luxury of not owning some Left Banke either).

Lineup: Michael Brown - keyboards; Steve Martin - vocals; George Cameron - drums, vocals; Tom Finn - bass, vocals. Brown left, 1968. First Rick Brand and then Tom Feher sometimes provided guitar duties (Feher also co-wrote many of the songs).



Year Of Release: 1967
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 13

The one album that missed the chance to share its glory with "Pet Sounds".


Track listing: 1) Walk Away Renee; 2) I Haven't Got The Nerve; 3) Pretty Ballerina; 4) She May Call You Up Tonight; 5) I've Got Something On My Mind; 6) Barterers And Their Wives; 7) Let Go Of You Girl; 8) What Do You Know; 9) Evening Gown; 10) Lazy Day; 11) Shadows Breaking Over My Head.

This record, as well as the Left Banke's second album, are both out of print, but that's no problem since I'm reviewing it based on the excellent compilation There's Gonna Be A Storm: The Complete Recordings 1966-1969, which combines both albums with a few extra singles and unreleased tracks. Thus, the only thing that's different is I have a different running order - I assume it's no big crime.

Anyway, it's one hell of a supreme record. Formally, it was meant to be a bunch of filler tracks surrounding the band's two most famous singles (hence the album name - to my mind, the only case of such a crappy name, too! Splurging the names of the two singles together? Aaargh! Imagine the Beatles' fifth album being called Help!/Ticket To Ride or something); but in reality, there's no true filler on here. In fact, the album's only two flaws are that (a) it's grossly short - eleven songs, clocking in at under thirty minutes and (b) some of the songs, particularly the ones that present the band's "rocking" personality, are merely good, not stunning in their greatness. Most ARE stunning, though, and in retrospect, it's simply one of the most overlooked albums of the epoch.

Topically, this falls into the same category with Pet Sounds, Odyssey And Oracle, and Forever Changes - the gorgeous atmospheric orchestrated shiny pop of the mid-Sixties. But there are a few significant differencies. First, in general, these songs are more upbeat; any of the three namechecked albums can theoretically put you to sleep if you're disposed - the Left Banke, on more than half of the songs, put up a steady beat and a powerful arrangement, all the while preserving the beauty and atmosphere. Second, the Left Banke were pioneers - inventing their baroque-influenced harpsichord-and-string-quartet-drenched sound way before a band like Love could make use of it, and pushing the formula much more radically than the Zombies did with their organ. You could say, of course, that the Left Banke themselves took their inspiration from such Beatles songs as 'Yesterday' (and they never denied that), but they expanded and extended that sound.

On top of that, all these songs are incredibly well-written. Not only are they innovative, upbeat, and emotional, they're also catchy as hell - and feature brilliant melodies that may take some time to grow on you, but are bound to subdue you in the end. I'd go as far as to state that many of these songs can easily compete with the Beach Boys and the Byrds - and some can actually beat them.

The two singles are, of course, the high points. 'Walk Away Renee', apparently written by Michael Brown as a memento for his "muse" - Tom Finn's former girlfriend - is the only song people still remember from the band, and it's a good choice. Graced by Brown's ever-present and ever-tasteful harpsichord, minimal, but majestic, orchestration, and a Pet Sounds-ish brass break, and, of course, that heartbroken nasal croon as Steve Martin and co. wail 'just walk away, Renee, you won't see me follow you back home', it's easily one of the most beautiful creations of American pop at the time. A lush, string-laden ballad, and yet miles and miles away from the generic orchestrated schlock - I guess you could only get away with stuff like that in NYC anyway.

The second single ('Pretty Ballerina' - need I really tell you?) is less "epic", but not any less pretty. Brown gets a vaguely familiar, but originally used piano riff going, and creates the background for another catchy and moving song, awash in 18th century classical motives. The ascending lead vocal part is amazing as well. BUT - and here's where I raise my voice in earnest - the B-sides are almost as good! Repeated listens only further hammer the decisive harpsichord riff of 'I Haven't Got The Nerve' into your head, and while you could argue the main vocal melody is ripped off of George Harrison's 'If I Needed Someone', it's used in such a totally different context it can hardly really matter. As for the 'Ballerina' B-side, 'Lazy Day', it's more of a restrained pop-rocker, the kind of song the Hollies could have made, but the kind of good song the Hollies could have made! With a fuzzy Stones-ish guitar tone to boot, meant to demonstrate that the Left Banke weren't such a devout bunch of wimpoids. Not sure if they really manage to demonstrate that, but at least the guitar sounds good.

The pure album tracks are rarely slouches either. 'She May Call You Up Tonight'? Outstanding vocal twists, brilliant transition into the chorus, classy vocal harmony arrangements - Rod Argent, eat your heart out. 'Barterers And Their Wives'? 'Scuse me if I'm being wrong, but isn't it the kind of song that Fairport Convention were supposed to be doing two years later? Oh, that's right, these guys quoted 'Lady Jane' as an influence - well, this one's almost as good as 'Lady Jane' (almost, since it misses something as immediately hitting as that immortal dulcimer line, but in every other respect, woohoo). 'Let Go Of You Girl'? Dark, broody, and deliciously instrumentated - check out that bubbling bassline in the chorus, which almost seems to appear out of nowhere. 'What Do You Know'? Okay, it's not the Left Banke's specialty to do country-western, but this one's pure delight, with just enough twists to ensure that it's anything but generic ('think of it girl... think of it girl - what do you know?').

In short, the only relative misfires could be 'I've Got Something On My Mind', which borrows too much from the vocal melody of 'I Haven't Got The Nerve' (it still got a great ringin' acoustic hook), and the short and kinda pointless rave-up on 'Evening Gown' (again, sounds like the Hollies, but this time like the Hollies in a mild creative stupor). They don't spoil anything, though, not in the big run. What a shame that it had to end so quickly - Brown, the band's main creative force, quit the band less than a year after the album's release, and the Left Banke thus missed a chance at stardom. And if you ask me, they could have achieved stardom - a little more tenaciousness and a little more promotion, particularly in good old Europe where these lads were taking so many of their ideas from, sure couldn't hurt. Alas, it was not to be, but hey, you still have this record!



Year Of Release: 1968
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10

This qualifies as "genius-deprived mannerism", but it's still pleasant to listen to, at least.


Track listing: 1) Desiree; 2) Dark Is The Bark; 3) My Friend Today; 4) Sing Little Bird Sing; 5) Goodbye Holly; 6) In The Morning Light; 7) Bryant Hotel; 8) Give The Man A Hand; 9) Nice To See You; 10) There's Gonna Be A Storm.

Not as good, and easily shows what it is to be deprived of chief songwriter. Only two of the songs on here have been written with Brown participating, and they're actually not among his best. 'Desiree' is a magnificent piece of production, but the hooks kind of get lost under all the excessive piles of vocal harmonies and extra instruments; that's certainly taking the formula a bit over the top. That doesn't mean it's not gorgeously enjoyable when it's on - these dreamy ah-ahs away in the background are among the best ah-ahs ever recorded anyway. But who knows, maybe Rick Brand's suggested guitar version of the song could have worked better in this particular context. The other song is the upbeat in-the-morning-light-like 'In The Morning Light', and it's darn good, but somehow I seem to favor Brown's melancholic stuff over his life-asserting stuff in general.

Everything else has either been written by Tom Finn, who never actually participated in composing before, or by Tom Feher, now deprived of his far superior collaborationist. With one major exception: 'Dark Is The Bark', co-written by all the band members, is the rare forgotten gem on here, a slow, broody, hypnotic folksy ballad, very similar in atmosphere to Simon & Garfunkel's re-working of 'Scarborough Fair', but with a much more elaborate arrangement; oh, and very much reminiscent of Smile-era Beach Boys as well, of course. The intertwining vocal harmonies in the chorus somehow manage to weave themselves into a catchy, well-structured melody, and for once they show they can actually achieve gorgeousness without Brown anywhere in sight.

But apparently, only when everybody puts their skills together, because none of the other compositions are that great. They seem to have all the needed ingredients - dreamy harmonies, Steve Martin's aching nasal vocals, orchestration-a-plenty, trumpets and harpsichords and stuff, but I dunno, I just don't seem to get as much of them as I do of the songs on the 1967 album. They're all pleasant, but that's about it. To me, it reeks of mannerism: a band desperately trying to hold on to a formula which was initiated by a lost member and the substance of which they can't possibly reproduce on their own.

'My Friend Today' is... uh... dreamy. Doesn't have much of an interesting melody. Doesn't even have a good harpsichord riff or anything. 'Sing Little Bird Sing' is destined to be a romantic acoustic ballad, and I guess it is one, but it ain't catchy. It doesn't hit my heartstrings. It also sounds like something James Taylor could have done on a particularly sentimental morning. 'Goodbye Holly' is another attempt at a country-rocker, but it's much weaker than the rollickin' 'What Do You Know'. Funny, is it just me or is the song's resemblance to the overall style of the Hollies connected to the title in any way? And what's up with the wimpy nowhere going electric guitar track on that one? 'Bryant Hotel' is the one song on here that's truly awful, something of a cross between the music hall of the Kinks and the band's early melancholia, with really really hideous screaming in the chorus. Never, never again try your hand at "aggressive", guys.

Even the album's "epic" piece, the four-minute-plus-long 'There's Gonna Be A Storm', is less than what it promises to be. In a way, it could have pointed a future for these guys: it's longer, it's multi-part, it incorporates actual storm sounds, it features operatic, at times almost proto-Queen vocals, in all respects, it's a BIG song as compared to all those other SMALL ones. But it ain't great; the only thing that truly inspires me about it is those swooping strings which seem to be "blown" by the wind in all directions, tumbling from one speaker to another and back again. It also fails to achieve true epicness; the arrangement is too thick for a simple pop song, yet too thin to blow you away.

On the other hand, I dunno, you might love all this stuff, maybe even more than Walk Away Renee. Mannerism is always like that - for some people style is more important than substance. Or maybe this one has all the substance and I'm just overlooking it. Anyway, this is a rather disappointing, if not terribly underwhelming, conclusion to the band's career, and let's leave it at that. But while we're still on this page, let me just mention a couple tracks present on this here compilation that didn't make it onto either of the regular albums: the single 'Ivy Ivy/And Suddenly' was released by Brown solo under the "Left Banke" name in early 1967, and it's quite good, with one side a plaintive acoustic ballad and the other one a fine upbeat pop-rocker slightly improving on 'In The Morning Light'; the late 1969 single 'Pedestal/Myrah', with one side a dreamy manneristic ballad in the vein of Too and the other one a dreamy non-manneristic ballad written by a newly-returned Brown; and, most important of all, the previously unreleased outtake 'Men Are Building Sand', which is quite simply the best Kinks song that the Kinks never wrote, with an English-sounding charm amazingly well captured by these New Yawk boys. Had some of these bonuses been a natural part of the second album, that would have helped its rating a lot.


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