DARYL HALL, the blond keyboardist of Hall and Oates, momentarily broke loose in the summer of 1977 from the laid-back, blue-eyed soul image he had built with the duo, and surreptitiously recorded an album under the production of Robert Fripp, a well-known avant-garde musician. RCA, Hall's record company, refused to release the album because it feared that the record would shatter Hall's commercially successful, syrupy facade. So, capitalism stifled creative expression until the long-awaited recent release of the in-famous Hall-Fripp collaboration, Sacred Songs.
Wonderfully rebellious, Hall displays a variety of talents on Sacred Songs that proves he can do more than croon sweet ballads. Fripp mainly provides a shelter for Hall from the influence of 1977 pop trends, and lets Hall experiment in an unrestrained environment. Familiar Hall and Oates themes still dominate the lyrics, but the music now stings with a vitality that the duo could never achieve. The change doesn't necessarily stem from the separation of Hall from Oates; more important is Hall's escape from the whole H&O production staff.
Releasing Sacred Songs now will definitely hurt the credibility of Hall's apparent switch to a more vivacious style. The unknowing will simply dismiss this work as just another softie-gone-new-wave commercial album (as with Billy Joel's Glass Houses and the Eagles' Long Run). Certainly, the executives at RCA had the cash-in objective in mind when they decided to release Sacred Songs at this time.
Remember, however, that Hall recorded this album when easy-listening acts like Fleetwood Mac dominated the airwaves before the Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello and Graham Parker high-energy excitement back into the market. Sacred Songs distinguishes itself as a suppressed, but nevertheless prophetic, work hailing a new era of "confusion, profanity and energy."
Shouting and grunting through many of the songs, Hall's most obvious slap at his old, burdensome image lashes out on the rocking title track. He hammers at the keyboards as if he's chipping away all the artifacts that used to encase his music. The final creation proves rough, yet confident, and he tests his new-found vocal endurance on a twisting, unconventional chord progression. Like a motorcycle zooming up a winding mountain road, Hall almost falls off the edge, but he finally reaches the top.
THE DECLARATION of his independence continues with its criticism of the musical status quo. Hall says he wants to give more significance to his compositions. Although it won't be an easy task, he wants to write "sacred songs" which will "live on." One can easily see to whom Hall directs his anger, since profound and meaningful songs such as "Night Fever" and "Boogie Oogie Oogie" were racing up the charts when Hall made the album.
The inane simplicity of disco held no promise for him; yet RCA probably hoped Hall and Oates would join the then swelling ranks of converted white disco acts. Hall makes it clear in "Something in 4/4 Time" that he would have no part in the disco phenomenon. We hear a tale of a woman who is heading for disaster because she cannot reason anything out by herself; meanwhile, the one thing which she can comprehend, a trite pop melody with a rather standard beat, ironically carries the structure of Hall's sermon.
To prove his artistry, Hall needed the production capabilities of another self-proclaimed "artiste," Robert Fripp. With Fripp as producer, Hall found someone who understood what Hall was trying to do. Fripp gives Hall all the space Hall needs, and he rarely tries to force his own musical style on Hall. The only discernible Fripp trademarks, some thickly textured synthesizer backgrounds, never cramp Hall's vitality. Fripp calls his electronic touches "Frippertronics," but the sounds they produce differ very little from other widely used synthesizers that simulate orchestral timbers. Fripp proudly displays his toy on his solo in "Urban Landscape," but the moment seems as impressive as watching smog roll in on Los Angeles. Fripp's guitar playing earns him much more credit.
Unusual rhythms, such as five and seven beats per measure, appear throughout the album, reinforcing Hall's denial of any commercial pretenses. "NYCNY" fuses a number of rhythms together to symbolize a relentless struggle to remain afloat in New York. Songs this complex could easily fall apart, but the band admirably surges through the difficult changes in beat. Caleb Quaye, Kenny Passarelli and Roger Pope, on guitar, bass and drums, respectively, provide Hall with a solid foundation. They, too, on this album depart from the popsy material they usually play. Formerly the backup band for Elton John on Rock of the Westies, and for Kiki Dee, they now leave the world of teeny-bopper 45s and enter a realm of more creative and significant expression.
Despite Hall's attempts to deny his former middle-of-the-road stance in "Without Tears," he shows a soft spot for the old style with some heartwarming emotion in his solo piano and fragile voice. Though the ballad initially seems to sound like most of his other work, it can't be labeled "contrived" or "artificial." Hall desperately wants to convince his audience that he is not the product of the financial avarice of some recording company executive.
Regrettably, the listening public will probably never realize the true audacity behind Sacred Songs. The impositions of society often force us to compromise our values in order to be accepted--as Hall and Oates had to in the days of "Sara Smile" and similar sappy material. Once Robert Fripp opened the gilded case whch restricted Hall's development, Hall's imagination thrived.
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