H20: the album that keeps on giving

I keep a notebook with to-do lists, names of records I’m looking for, movies to watch, and (as found in last year’s notebook) a full-page demand for myself to LISTEN TO ALL HALL & OATES ALBUMS IN THEIR ENTIRETY ASAP! I went through a similar phase with the Bee Gees a few years ago, knowing that a band capable of such a stellar run of singles clearly had to be writing album tracks nearly as good or better, and I spent months getting up close and personal with Idea, Horizontal, and Main Course–now my three favorite Bee Gees albums. 

I’ve always associated Hall & Oates with the sweaty H2O cover, which is no wonder I never exactly embraced the duo. But a group responsible for “I Can’t Go For That” (admittedly ripped off by Michael Jackson for “Billie Jean”), “Maneater,” “Sara Smile,” “Private Eyes,” and “Kiss On My List” deserves not to be judged by one silly sleeve. My Hall & Oates education would begin with H2O  because admittedly, it’s the only H&O album I own, and then I would proceed in reverse chronological order (Private Eyes, Voices, and so on). I should be on Abandoned Luncheonette by now, but four months into H2O and I still can’t move past it. I am astounded that I’ve had this LP in my collection for probably 20 years now, and never gave it a listen. 

H2O was released in 1982, reached #3 on the Billboard charts, and sold over two million copies. This was not an overlooked album by any means, but as with so many of the commercial acts I listen to, I rarely get beyond the singles. It’d be hard to find a person unfamiliar with H2O opener, “Maneater,” but “Italian Girls?” “Go Solo?” “Open All Night?” Wow! I can just imagine the A&R meeting. We have too many contenders for singles. Gee whiz…. which one do we choose? It’s a far cry from today’s music biz reality where commercial artists are having to re-write records due to lack of hit material and labels set up songwriting boot camps in desperate need of a hit for Rihanna. Daryl Hall and John Oates wrote nearly all of the material on H2O, along with Hall’s girlfriend Sara Allen, who co-wrote “Maneater,” “Crime Pays,” my current favorite,”Open All Night,” amongst others. Somehow Hall & Oates’ signature blue-eyed soul only gets enhanced by the super-slick, synthetic production so common in the ’80s. What I find so appealing about such unabashedly commercial acts like Hall & Oates and the Bee Gees is their obvious respect for hooks and melodies, song craft, and intelligence. So few successful artists today tick all those boxes. Lady Gaga has a brilliant visual imagination and an obvious appreciation for music history, but her songs are so bland. 

If H2O is in any way autobiographical, one of the men clearly took an emotional beating. The female predator is everywhere on this record, most blatantly on “Maneater,” but she reappears on at least six of the eleven tracks. Album closer “Go Solo” finds Hall venting about the imminent demise of his relationship. “If I ain’t enough for you, go solo!” I can barely contain myself listening to this track. The pre-chorus is such a tease, preparing you for a chorus that turns out to be so unexpected, yet so much more satisfying than you had imagined. I couldn’t wait for it to come around again. H2O is teeming with such magical moments–John Oates’ “At Tension” explains the dilemma of joining the army, so eloquently, with a yearning chorus and such thoughtful lyrics. “All good soldiers stand, all good soldiers try to follow orders without ever asking why.” Read that with the song playing, and it’s hard not to feel the emotion. After repeated listens, “Open All Night” slowly reveals itself, one subtlety after another, with a hip-swaying tempo and a simple yet irresistible chorus so typical of Daryl Hall. The ridiculously camp lyrics of “Italian Girls” would make it easy to dismiss ( “I eat too much pasta basta, I’m so full and yet so lonely”) if it wasn’t such a catchy slice of bubblegum meets power pop. But if you’re new to H2O, head straight to Side B for “Family Man,” a Mike Oldfield cover (minus the aggravating guitar doodling) with Daryl Hall meeting yet another female maneater–a prostitute to whom he pleads, “Leave me alone, I’m a family man!” 

If the previous Hall & Oates albums are anywhere near this good, I’m in for a serious treat!

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