The Left Banke
Band Rating: 3

  • Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina
  • The Left Banke Too
  • Montage

    Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina (1967)
    Page Rating: 10
    Overall Rating: 13

    The Left Banke lacked the necessary longevity to truly spark a musical revolution, yet despite the brevity of their time together as an ensemble the band managed to become quite influential in some circles, carving out their own unique niche in sixties rock music with their innovative brand of baroque pop.

    The term 'baroque pop' was coined in reference to The Left Banke's predilection for integrating elements of classical music into their work, complete with the usual accoutrements of the genre like string arrangements.

    Despite one's usual associations with the fusion of classical music and rock and roll, The Left Banke's musical approach bore little in common with that of the progressive rock acts that would emerge just a scant few years later. When prog outfits like Emerson, Lake & Palmer would incorporate classical elements into their material, the resulting product would be decidedly more complex and inaccessible. The Left Banke, on the other hand, utilize classical motifs that simply embellish their songs, never compromising or complicating what are at heart simple, straightforward and unpretentious pop songs.

    Thus the classical aspects of The Left Banke's sound never constitute the thrust of their tracks, rather acting as ways of enriching the inherent beauty of the group's work. This isn't to diminish the importance of the classical influence or dismiss it as a novelty, as it remains an integral part of the band's sound; it simply acts more as another layer of the group's sound as opposed to a foundation or framework for their music. Thus it's The Left Banke's keen pop sensibility that's truly the driving force behind their songs, with the classical elements assuming an important yet ancillary role, never an afterthought but far from the band's core.

    One would assume that an album that derives its name from a group's first two singles would be an erratic affair, essentially an LP containing the two advertised opuses mercilessly inundated by waves upon waves of filler. Thus it's quite surprising that The Left Banke's debut is a highly consistent work with nary a single misfire amidst its track-listing, a procession of pop music of the highest order.

    The two singles, Walk Away Renee and Pretty Ballerina, are both unspeakably beautiful pop songs, with singer Steve Martin's gentle intonations skillfully complemented by lush string arrangements. I Haven't Got The Nerve and I've Got Something On My Mind are two stellar pop rockers that may resemble one another to a certain extent, but still have more than enough personality to distinguish them from each other, while She May Call You Up Tonight features an array of irresistible and unforgettable vocal melodies.

    Barterers And Their Wives boasts enough vocal hooks for an entire album let alone a single track, What Do You Know is a charming country-western send-up and Let Go Of You Girl is both nasty and catchy in the best tradition of certain selections (like Run If You Can) from John Lennon's oeuvre. Lazy Day features a brilliant riff enhanced by an infectious fuzzy guitar tone, Evening Gown is a compact nugget of thrilling psychedelic mania and Shadows Breaking Over My Head is simply gorgeous.

    Michael Brown acts as the principal songwriter, and much of the album's brilliance can be attributed to his musical genius. He's also responsible for the keyboard work, which acts as a pivotal component of nearly every song. Sadly enough he left the band after just a single album, but at least he made sure that said album is a true masterpiece that manages to sound completely of-its-time without ever sounding the least bit dated.

    Most critical scrutiny of the band (what little scrutiny there is for a largely forgotten group like The Left Banke, that is) focuses on their classical elements, eschewing songwriting critique in favor of dissecting historical importance. While this is a mistake, it's still understandable, as even though the classical elements were never what made The Left Banke great they were what separated the band from other great groups. Thus the classical side adroitly differentiated The Left Banke from their contemporaries, illustrating which groups the band wasn't without really showing who they were.

    The Left Banke Too (1968)
    Page Rating: 8
    Overall Rating: 11

    The Left Banke had suffered from severe internal tension since their very inception, so it was no surprise when the driving creative force in the group, Michael Brown, departed from the band in the wake of the release of Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina.

    This predictability, however, didn't cushion the blow of a loss that was tantamount to The Doors losing Morrison or Joy Division losing Curtis. Brown's songwriting had been the foundation upon which The Left Banke had been built, and to persevere in spite of a crippling loss like this seemed almost folly.

    Nevertheless The Left Banke did persevere, and whether it was inspired by bravery or a pronounced case of denial the band proceeded to release their second album merely a year after their debut had hit the shelves.

    A group that's been unceremoniously stripped of their creative center has few recourses to fall back on. They can attempt to take their music in a radically new direction, acting as if their loss has afforded them a new brand of artistic freedom, or they can pretend that the loss never happened, simply going about their business as usual. The Left Banke opted for the latter choice, steadfastly adhering to the formula that had won them so much praise and adulation a mere year before.

    The wisdom of this choice is highly debatable, and the question that inevitably arises is if it's even possible. Brown had played an integral role in the sound of the band, and without him 'business as usual' wasn't even an option. The Left Banke could not duplicate their old sound when a pivotal component of the band was missing, and thus carrying on as if nothing had changed was simply an exercise in futility.

    Nonetheless the band actually did an admirable job of approximating their old sound, but this in and of itself was a pyrrhic victory. As I'd stated, The Left Banke's 'baroque pop' style, as impressive as it was, was at heart merely the window-dressing of the band, as their true art revolved around Brown's brilliant pop sensibility. Thus it was the absence of Brown's songwriting genius and not the trappings of baroque pop that constituted the true loss. Baroque pop could be emulated, but Brown's pop acumen was forever lost to the band.

    Given this equation it's readily apparent what the post-Brown Left Banke sound like, namely the style of the old band without the substance. This doesn't work as poorly as one would imagine, however, as The Left Banke's style is inherently intriguing and alluring, capable of transfiguring inert, second-rate pop songs into reasonably compelling material. It may only be the superficial side of the band that's withstood the creative overhaul and remained intact, but this proves sufficient to arrest one's attention when the band's hooks fail.

    This isn't to say that the content on The Left Banke Too is uniformly poor, as even without Brown the band's retained at least a modicum of songwriting proficiency. In this regard Dark Is The Bark is genuinely beautiful, an understated acoustic number that's moving without feeling forced, while My Friend Today is rather catchy, albeit less so than most tracks on the band's debut.

    More often than not, however, a track will feature a single hook to lure you in, a la the 'try to tell/who's singing this song so well' intro to Nice To See You, then subsequently fail to live up to this initial promise, coming across as little more than blandly appealing or pleasant yet generic.

    Furthermore some songs are fully bankrupt in the hook department, relying completely on the accoutrements of baroque pop to win the listener's attention. There's a limit to how often this can work, and by the end of the album the band have certainly tried the patience of their audience in this department.

    There are actually four Brown-penned numbers on the album, but they don't represent the full extent of his abilities, never matching the caliber of his work on Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina. Desiree is actually quite strong, an instant highlight on a flawed album, and Myrah sets a unique tone for the band, but the other tracks don't fare quite as well.

    And Suddenly is consummately grating, an aggressively peppy and upbeat life-affirming anthem that manages to be as nauseatingly cheery as Good Day Sunshine while lacking that song's innate charms. In The Morning Light is little more than a precursor to And Suddenly, sharing its liabilities without much to reward one's endurance.

    Despite these myriad problems The Left Banke Too is still a fundamentally entertaining album. The baroque pop sound, even when unaccompanied by accomplished melodies or memorable hooks, is simply profoundly charming, a winning formula that ensures an at least somewhat enjoyable listen.

    It's also not as if the songwriting is outright bad or painful, as tracks like Goodbye Holly, while lacking in hooks and distinctiveness, are still quite pleasant and thoroughly inoffensive.

    There are even a few attempt at diversity, hence the music hall stylings of Bryant Hotel and the miniature epic that is There's Gonna Be A Storm. The former does betray the sound of the group to an extent, and the latter, while interesting, is still underwhelming and far from being the band's Riders On The Storm, but it's admirable that The Left Banke would ever move beyond their comfort zone, and it makes for a more compelling listening experience.

    Thus The Left Banke Too is a flawed but solid affair. There are few classics to be found, and the songwriting is erratic at best, but the album still makes for a truly appealing, endearing listen. The band may be a mere shell of their former selves, but the truth of the matter is that even the shell of a group as gifted as The Left Banke is enough to provide a genuinely entertaining experience.

    Montage (1969)
    Released By: Montage
    Page Rating: 10
    Overall Rating: 13

    While Michael Brown left The Left Banke on presumably acrimonious terms in the wake of the release of their first album, it didn't take long for him to land on his feet. His father was managing a rock group called Montage, and while it might not necessarily have been his original intention, it didn't take long for Brown to get involved with this fledgling band and assume a position of great, if poorly defined, importance with his fellow musicians.

    Brown's role with the group, however, has been fraught with ambiguity and counterintuitive dedications. While the erstwhile Left Banke composer isn't credited with being a member of Montage, he's responsible for all of the band's songwriting and vocal arrangements, not to mention the fact that he plays keyboards on every track on the group's debut. Thus the decision to omit him from the band's official roster is truly perplexing, and indeed remains a mystery to this very day.

    I suppose that from a perspective Brown isn't a member of Montage, but rather Montage is an extension of his artistic voice, a creative outlet for his impeccable pop sensibility (undiminished from his Left Banke days). All the other members need do is realize Brown's musical visions, never requiring them to take any liberties with the interpretation of his compositions or attempt to take the band in different directions. They were Brown's instruments, and as long as they served this function well they never had to worry about the caliber of their material, even if their own artistic voices were essentially silenced.

    More often than not, however, if a musical genius usurps the creative direction of a band, becoming unapologetically dictatorial in their approach to intra-group dynamics, the result will turn out quite well, as shameless tyrants like Ian Anderson can attest. And if Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina wasn't a sufficient indication of the extent of Michael Brown's abilities, then Montage's eponymous debut is resounding and conclusive proof of his absolute songwriting brilliance.

    Montage truly is the rightful successor to Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina, capturing the Left Banke's signature baroque pop sound while retaining Brown's superb pop songwriting. Whereas The Left Banke Too simply duplicated the band's style but not substance, Montage preserves everything that made The Left Banke's debut a stunning work of art, matching not only the form but the quality of the album as well.

    While Montage unfortunately inherited the brevity of Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina, it also received the consistency of its spiritual predecessor. The album is filled with terrific vocal melodies and gorgeous arrangements, and while Brown's fellow musicians may be excluded from the songwriting process they still acquit themselves admirably in their instrumental roles, seldom inspiring the listener to wish that it was The Left Banke carrying out Brown's musical visions as opposed to his newfound collaborators.

    I Shall Call Her Mary is a stellar opener, a pop gem of the highest order, while She's Alone is a genuinely moving opus with a complex yet irresistible vocal melody and brilliant string arrangements. Songs like Grand Pianist and The Song Is Love ensure that the quality of the album remains high, while An Audience With Miss Priscilla Gray proves to be a far more successful foray into the realm of music-hall than Brown's former group achieved without him on Bryant Hotel.

    Two of these tracks could already be found as bonuses on The Left Banke's albums, namely Men Are Building Sand and Desiree. While I prefer the Left Banke rendition of the former, it remains a stellar number, while the latter is as beautiful here as it was on The Left Banke Too.

    The ten album tracks on Montage are simply unimpeachable, brilliant pop songs that have considerable artistic heft yet remain wholly accessible. As far as the bonus tracks are concerned, The Mirror is yet another superb outing for the band, while the instrumental Thor And Or is a delightful rocker with infectious wah-wah flourishes. The instrumental cuts of The Song Is Love and Desiree are decidedly superfluous, but it is interesting that songs that rely heavily on catchy vocal melodies remain impressive even without those otherwise pivotal vocal hooks.

    Thus Montage is a brilliant album, a first-rate pop LP on par with the best of its generation. Michael Brown reestablishes himself as one of the premier song-scribes of the sixties, proving that even without The Left Banke he's capable of reaching the dizzying heights he'd attained with his former band-members. Montage is absolutely essential for any Left Banke fan, a worthy successor to one of the most unjustly forgotten albums of its time.