Lately I’ve had Hall & Oates on the brain. It started with the news of poor T-Bone Wolk, truly the duo’s heartbeat at bass and oh, so much more. The day he died all I could think about was his delightfully goofy puss, a wall of infectious amusement that made Hall & Oates videos tolerable. In fact, he was often more diverting than the marquee blue-eyed brain trust, the sugar-sugar money lungs. T-Bone was just as much a hoot on Saturday Night Live, standing to bandleader G.E. Smith’s (another from the H&O bloc) right and throwing his gawky frame into every summoned thump. When he shuffled off to permanent Buffalo, a lot of sparkle left this cold, dumb world.
Now, this month, we’re due a pair of Hall & Oates tribute discs, the most prominent being The Bird and the Bee’s Interpreting the Masters, Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates, scheduled for a March 23 descent. (You can watch this while you wait.) But they’ve been beaten to daylight by a pack of erudite swells (one is Robert Lurie, author of No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and the Church) called Koot Hoomi and their stupendous The Dark Side of Hall & Oates, available right this very second and game for a good home. So dump those hoary Hooters and make some goddamn room!
Everyone’s so anxious to spread the word they’ve even e-mailed ME, and I blog from my glacier-top once a WiFi Equinox. There I was, at my neighborhood Shop-N-Sneer, the digits of my right hand clamped to blue jeans desperate to meet my shoes, the fingers of my left hand alternately shuttling discount preservatives into a red plastic basket and fondling the putrefied rice cakes. Suddenly my hip pocket stirred with a gentle VVVT!, signaling a missive from the urban beyond — in this case, the Portland-based Pet Marmoset PR. Scanned the release, drooled my consent. Yes. “The Dark Side of Hall & Oates,” I murmured to the Totino’s pork-rub pizza sticks, 3 for $6.99. Thus enraptured, I drop-kicked my groceries back to their vermin wombs, side-armed a clerk in the parking lot for fun, and marched three blocks home in the pouring yawn to load this fucker with a posthaste quickness.
This was kismet. This was fate. This was meant to be. Two nights earlier I’d had this woozy dream of a friend I hadn’t seen since Taylor Swift’s mom was still kissing throw pillows in her parents’ den. Except in my dream, 2010 was actually 1990 and we were the same age we are now, reminiscing about a past that predated our own. We tooled through the villa in sore-gullet Mustang, windows down and rattling. At some point, Hall & Oates’ “Kiss on My List” filled the shell and I remarked that it was the one song I knew of where the pre-chorus was superior to the chorus. Because it was all about the anticipation: pitter-pat keys goading Daryl Hall’s hover and soar. It hangs, a giddy cloud float, that moment when the windows are just beginning to fog.
None of that anticipation exists on the Koot Hoomi version. All the synthetic early-’80s elements have been gutted, discarded, and trucked to oblivion’s darkest market. This “Kiss” begins with the wind-chop throttle of a helicopter delivering fresh meat to The Shit. It’s like a pop-song memory that comments on itself, an oasis from the danger representing both the longing for home and its presently inaccesible representative. Soldiers slog through bogs or tromp down dunes, minds heavy with fantasies of the sweet and real. An acoustic guitar shivers anxiously under a voice forlorn.
Sonically, Koot Hoomi are reminiscent of (no offense intended) The Godz, a freak-raga fistful championed in the wayback by Lester Bangs when Hall & Oates were still slugging through nightclubs and Econo Lodge frissons with lost-eyed townies gone on Boone’s Farm and napkins stamped in lipstick. If you’re unfamiliar with The Godz — a likely assumption — imagine, then, say, Simon & Garfunkel fed their weight in Bombay opium and locked inside a freezer. The powers-that-be at the old ESP Records would’ve shit themselves reborn distributing Dark Side to every head shop in America. The poets and the pilled-up would congregate over a communal hookah and nod their blown noodles. They’d dig the exotic tingle, the thunder of a million gurus seeking enlightenment only to find it in Philly soul.
In the Koot Hoomi prism, “Maneater” is less of a warning to a bro than grim resignation — which, if you think about it, is a more realistic response to the futility of dispensing advice. You’re doomed, it says, and you’re going to savor the bloodshed even after she’s sucked every corpuscle dry. A violinist (Harper Piver) has already been commissioned to weep you into the earth. Hell, all the necessary arrangements were made in advance. What you’re hearing is a eulogy; by now, she’s driven an icepick through your guts and flitted to her next victim. We’ve left no flowers on your plot, old friend, just a row of planted suckers.
Like any good tribute project, the track list invades the dustier corners of the H&O canon, flying in Laura Nyro’s piano from the afterworld to hammer jolts into “Back in Love Again” and weave a church-recital groove through “A Lot of Changes Comin’,” both adeptly ivory-dropped by the Swami Premananda. “Wait for Me” is quite beautiful (as is “Had I Known You Better Then,” delivered in an aching Kinks-ian croak), guaranteed to envelop your aura in angora and loving sighs falling like the softest-dropped bomb.
For all the deliberate reinventions, Koot Hoomi’s approach to “One on One” is surprisingly straightforward, minus the late-night R&B waterfalls and the scales Daryl caresses with those buttered tonsils. Sadly, no amount of tinkering can save “Adult Education”; it remains a misstep in the gilded wilderness pre-Big Bam Boom, when John Oates had golddust implanted above his upper lip so his mustache made a profit and Daryl Hall bought every mirror in existence, then ordered them re-installed at strategic angles so he could monitor his coif from anywhere in the world.
BVVVVT! Hey, another e-mail! “Dear Cory: Pardon me for interrupting your flow, but I find these Koot Hoomi chaps intriguing enough to stalk to the point of restraining orders and possible jail time. Tell me, before I plunge into this rabid obsession, do they do anything with ‘Rich Girl’?” I’m sorry, they do not. But there’s plenty left to give them cause to call the cops.
1. Kiss on My List (suite)
i. Still in Kabul
ii. Kiss on My List
iii. Open Market Stomp
2. Say It Isn’t So
4. I’m Sorry
5. Out of Touch
6. Back in Love
7. Had I Known You Better Then
8. I Can’t Go for That (suite)
i. Om Guru Oates
ii. I Can’t Go for That
9. Lot of Changes Comin’
10. Wait for Me
11. When the Morning Comes
12. If That’s What Makes You Happy
13. Adult Education
14. One on One
15. Maneater (Reprise)