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Review: The Left Banke, “Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina” and “The Left Banke Too”

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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! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

June 30, 2011 at 11:25

Posted in News, Reissues, Reviews, The Left Banke

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Release Round-Up: Week of June 28

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Queen, News of the World / Jazz / The Game / Flash Gordon / Hot Space: Deluxe Editions (Island/UMC)

The next wave of Queen remasters are out this Monday in England. If you don’t want to get them as imports, you’ll have to wait until September to get these as domestic reissues – by which point I’d imagine the third wave will be out in the U.K. (Official site)

Alice Cooper, Old School 1964-1974 (Bigger Picture)

This desk-sized box includes not pencils, not books, not black eyeliner, but four CDs of unreleased rarities from Alice Cooper’s early years, along with some vinyl goodies and extra swag. (Official site)

Teena Marie, Lady T: Expanded Edition / Irons in the Fire: Expanded Edition / First Class Love: Rare Tee (Hip-o Select/Motown)

The Ivory Queen of Soul is honored with expansions of her second and third Motown LPs plus a double-disc set of unreleased tracks (originally issued as a smaller-scale digital set). (Hip-o Select: Lady T, Irons, Rare Tee)

Alicia Keys, Songs in A Minor: Deluxe and Collector’s Editions (J/Legacy)

To mark ten(!) years since Alicia Keys’ first album was released, it’s been expanded with a host of vault material (and in the case of the collector’s edition, a new documentary). The original album has also been pressed on vinyl, too. (Official site)

The Left Banke, Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina / The Left Banke Too (Sundazed)

Two long-out-of-print albums by The Left Banke, newly reissued on CD and vinyl (Sundazed: Walk Away CD, LP; Too CD, LP; CD bundle, LP bundle, CD and LP bundle)

The Doobie Brothers, Live at The Greek Theatre 1982: Farewell Tour (Eagle Rock)

A CD (or DVD – not both, sadly) set of The Doobies’ last tour before Michael McDonald went full-on solo, featuring guest appearances by a handful of former members. (Eagle Rock: CD, DVD)

Deep Purple, Phoenix Rising (Eagle Rock)

A treasure from the vault – documentary footage of the band’s live tour in 1975 – and all the rock and roll insanity that followed. (Eagle Rock: CD/DVD, Blu-Ray)

Various Artists, The Best of Soul Train Live (Time-Life)

I’ve been on a Soul Train kick lately, and it excites me to see this compilation of a handful of live performances on the long-running show get an official CD release. (Amazon)

Buddy Guy with Junior Wells and Junior Mance, Buddy and The Juniors (Hip-o Select/Verve)

The U.S. CD debut of this loose, laid-back record from the Blue Thumb catalogue. (Hip-o Select)

Paul McCartney, Run Devil Run (MPL/Concord)

Not nearly as expansive as the last McCartney reissues – this one’s just a straight-up remaster. (Official site)

UPDATE: Don’t “Walk Away”: Left Banke Reissues Coming from Sundazed on June 28

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Today, The Left Banke is probably best known for “Walk Away Renee.” A No. 5 pop hit in 1966, the song has been recorded by The Four Tops, Frankie Valli, Linda Ronstadt and Eric Carmen, to name a few, and remains a staple of oldies radio today. But was The Left Banke a mere flash in the pan, just a one-hit wonder? Far from it. Yet things have been stacked against the group for quite a while now: neither of their two original Smash LPs has ever seen CD release in America, and the definitive CD-era anthology There’s Gonna Be a Storm, produced by Bill Inglot and annotated by Andrew Sandoval, was released in 1992 (Mercury 848 095-2), only to disappear thereafter. It today commands high prices in the second-hand market. Luckily, Sundazed Music has come along to remind us that there was much more to The Left Banke than that one irresistible song. On June 28, the label will reissue Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina and The Left Banke Too in their original stereo mixes, on both 180-gram vinyl and CD, reminding listeners of the lush sound of this all-too-short-lived band.

The group behind “Walk Away Renee” consisted of Michael Brown, Steve Martin, George Cameron and Tom Finn. Inspired by Finn’s then-girlfriend Renee Fladen, “Walk Away Renee” was the recipient of heavy promotion from Mercury Records’ Smash division and led the vanguard of what would soon be classified as “baroque pop” – or “baroque rock” – by those who feel the need to place such labels on great music. (Certainly Mercury did, using the punning phrase “go for baroque” on record album copy!) “Renee” indeed blended a killer pop melody with complex string arrangements, as did its follow-up, “Pretty Ballerina.” This followed “Renee” into the upper reaches of the chart, going Top Fifteen in 1967. Don’t walk away; hit the jump for more! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

May 3, 2011 at 10:22