It was bound to happen — this (indie) critical re-evaluation of music from artists like Hall & Oates, Steely Dan, and mid-period post-Peter Cetera Chicago. This music, so quickly and damningly dubbed “yacht rock” for its seeming studio excess, rose to prominence in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and these artists promptly developed a rabid fan base who anxiously awaited every sax riff and gaudy, glossy harmonica solo. But despite the rather slick, spit-shine veneer that the music obviously cultivated, the melodies under all the extravagant instrumentation and obvious displays of record label money were surprisingly memorable and meticulously built. Indie mainstays like Bon Iver and Destroyer have brushed up against this genre on their past records and fan reaction has been mixed to say the least, despite the artist’s honest and obvious affection for the source material. It is a difficult line to walk though — too far one way and you’re seen as being overly indulgent and mired in the idea of your own importance, and too far the other way and you’re seen as simply using these sounds as a polish to cover over your own shortcomings as a songwriter.
And then you have Yacht Rock Revue, a group of Atlanta guys so enamored with these sounds that their self-titled debut EP sounds like it should have been released in 1978. Obviously, subtlety is not something the band has ever dealt in, as their sound goes past simple homage and becomes something else entirely—something oddly authentic but also charmingly artificial. Saxophones trill, harmonica runs are denuded, and the slap bass pops like Bootsy Collins on a bender. Opening track “LA Lindsay” is a song that Steely Dan should have recorded, though it probably would have been discarded for being too Steely Dan-ish. Yacht Rock Revue has no such qualms about the song and burn through it with a zeal bordering on fanaticism. Its gentle Laurel Canyon vibe melds perfectly with the rising saxophones and singer Nicholas Niespodziani’s CSN&Y croon. “Good Thing” takes the idea of George Clinton kicking John Oates out of Hall & Oates and creating Hall & Clinton. Funk bass slams up against a melody so sickly sweet that it seems to pour out of the speakers like honey, and you wind up feeling downright sticky when the song ends.
The spirit of Huey Lewis & the News makes a prominent appearance on “Can’t Wait for Summer”—Niespodziani even sounds a bit like Lewis on this track. As the melody winds its way back in on itself and the saxophone races alongside beside the sleek vocals, you can almost hear “It’s Hip To Be Square” playing in the background. In fact, the only real weak spot—given that you aren’t one of the many who would dismiss this music immediately as being overtly inconsequential (you know who you are)—is that there is no discernible trace of the band themselves. Everything is put to work in the service of their influences and individuality gets lost somewhere in the shuffle. But given their slavish devotion to their influences, maybe that’s the point. “Cartoon Butterfly” sounds closer to current trends than anything else here but even on that song, the band never veers too far away from their self-imposed musical boundaries–just wait until the flute solo kicks in.
At this point, it’s only fair to point out that my parents weaned me on music by Bread, America, and The Carpenters. Every soft rock AM Gold artist was fair game when it came to my initial musical education. In high school, when other kids were putting Snoop Dogg and Tupac on their mixtapes, I was putting songs by Toto and Paper Lace on mine—“The Night Chicago Died” is still one of the best songs of the ’70s. I mention this because Yacht Rock Revue closes out this EP with a blistering cover of “Africa” by Toto. And as epic and bombastic as the original was(is), the band’s cover is something out of a karaoke wet dream. It’s not difficult to make the argument that “Africa” is one of only a handful of perfectly constructed pop songs, and still Yacht Rock Revue manage to up the ante on every subsequent chorus in the song. Whether it’s the gradually building toms (I will never be able to un-hear that tom roll that leads into the third chorus) or the painstakingly harmonized vocals, the band succeeds in not only doing the original justice but actually elevating an already classic song even higher.
It’s difficult to say whether Yacht Rock Revue will be taken seriously or will simply be seen as a gimmick band who makes purposefully kitschy music, though I do think that the latter is a fundamentally flawed way of approaching music which is so indebted to a particular period of time. Listen to the melodies, hear the precision, and tell me that these guys don’t take their music seriously, despite all evidence to the contrary. Decide on the merits of the music itself before casually dismissing them for adhering so assuredly to a specific set of musical characteristics. Then again, if you can’t match me word for word on “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight” by England Dan & John Ford Coley, I’m not sure that you’re the target market for this record..