The Dark Side of Hall and Oates: An Album Review

(Disclaimer: Robert Dean Lurie, author of the definitive biography of Steve Kilbey and an overly glowing assessment of my talents as a writer, is one of my oldest and dearest friends. How good a friend is Rob? I attended his wedding in North Carolina; off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other time in the last decade that I have crossed a state line for any reason other than college football. Accordingly, I cannot claim to be truly impartial. Nevertheless, what follows is entirely accurate and sincere.)

Let’s face it . . . when you think of Hall and Oates, you think of the hair and the clothes and the leaps in and out of the frame in their videos, which seemed excessive even at the time, even when judged by the standards of the 1980s, which were forgiving in the same way fans of television in the 1950s were forgiving of, say, Red Skelton not because he was particularly funny but because the medium was new and it was easy to conflate "novel" with "good" in the absence of any legitimate basis for comparison. So it was when we wanted our MTV because too much was never enough.

You remember the look of Hall and Oates, maybe even the feel of Hall and Oates; in short, you recall the style, which is why it’s so jarring today, so many years later, to find out that, son of a gun, Daryl Hall and John Oates had substance, after all.

The vehicle which carried me to this realization was Koot Hoomi’s The Dark Side of Hall and Oates, which I have mentioned in this space before. It was said after Whitney Houston’s constantly-crescendoing rendition of "I Will Always Love You" that Dolly Parton’s heartbreaking original version of the song was the way a grown-up would sing it; Houston sang it like a shallow adolescent imagining the grandeur of the sorrow she would one day feel upon losing the love she had not yet known, but Parton sang it like an adult reflecting upon the sadness of the past rather than getting moon-eyed over the romantic notion of sorrows yet to come.

The Dark Side of Hall and Oates is to the blond pompadour and the pushed-up jacket sleeves and the overall "Miami Vice"-like quality of the MTV Hall and Oates what Dolly Parton’s understated warble is to Whitney Houston’s overdramatized wail. If the excesses of the ‘80s made us unnecessarily conscious of the ultra-cool images and slick production values of Hall and Oates, the less ebullient era in which the Velvet Fallopian Tube Records release came to light has enabled Koot Hoomi to show us what we missed on our first superficial listen. The group caught our eye; what did not catch our ear the first time, but should have, were the beauty and power of lyrics like these:

Reaching out for something to hold
Looking for a love where the climate is cold
Manic moves and drowsy dreams
Or living in the middle between the two extremes
Smoking guns hot to the touch
Would cool down if we didn’t use them so much

Love is what it does and ours is doing nothing
But all the time we spent, it must be good for something
Please forgive all the disturbance I’m creating
But you got a lot to learn if you think that I’m not waiting for you

Nothing left to say; I used to wake up every day
Thinking back on what I should have said
I put my trust in a rifle full of rust
And the holding of it had to turn my hands red

Mark Twain wrote that Wagner’s music was better than it sounded; Daryl Hall’s and John Oates’s music sounded better than it looked. What Koot Hoomi has accomplished is nothing less than translating the music of my youth into a form that is relevant and appropriate to my adulthood. That is a public service of inestimable worth to any fortysomething who has to greet his children’s mockery of his musical tastes as a teenager with sheepish embarrassment. I now feel equipped to defend to 21st century teens what sounded good to me in the ‘80s with the same vehemence with which my father defended to me what sounded good to him in the ‘60s.

Koot Hoomi sings in the right number of voices, as Robert Dean Lurie takes the lead but does not dominate the album as its principal architect. Harper Piver renders with an aching clarity and purity the inherent tragedy of "Maneater," which deserves to be a sadder song than its overly peppy original version was allowed to be; after all, there is no chance the intended recipient of the advice being offered heeded the wisdom before it was too late, and Piver presents it the way the wise man would have warned A.E. Housman when he was one and twenty.

Following a few opening notes on the piano reminiscent of another weary yet resilient ‘80s anthem, the theme song from "Hill Street Blues," Swami Premananda manages to make "Back in Love Again" hopeful without being saccharine, while Daniel Lurie paints with subdued tones the paean to lost time that is "Had I Known You Better Then."

The first time I listened to The Dark Side of Hall and Oates, it was a bit shocking, what with the beating of helicopter blades and all, and, frankly, it left me a little depressed, albeit in a good way. I was reminded of the time I introduced someone to "Twin Peaks." A few minutes into one of the Black Lodge sequences, the bewildered newcomer turned to me and said, "What am I watching?" Like the work of David Lynch, this strange twist on the tribute album is worth working through as it gets down to the essence of a pair of rock musicians who had a good deal more essence than you probably gave them credit for having.

Personally, I regret the absence of a Koot Hoomi cover of "You Make My Dreams Come True," but there was neither CD enough nor time to include every song worthy of making the cut, and the artists were right to mix and match top 40 hits with hidden gems rather than relying strictly on the tracks you remember. Reimagining the Hall and Oates canon required delving deeply in the way Koot Hoomi has done; you can’t skim surfaces while advocating full immersion.

The second time I listened to The Dark Side of Hall and Oates, I was in the car with my wife and children, heading to Athens for a Georgia baseball game. (Well, all right, I skipped "I Can’t Go for That," but only because part of the aside on L. Ron Hubbard and Celine Dion was not appropriate fare for my kids.) It dawned on me somewhere along the way that my son and my daughter are going to grow up thinking this is what Hall and Oates sounded like. I can go for that.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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