Left Banke – Strangers on a Train (Omnivore Recordings)
A great “lost” baroque pop album…complete with bonus tracks
The Left Banke brought a new level of sophistication to AM radio in the mid-Sixties with singles like “Walk Away Renee” and “Pretty Ballerina,” mixing melodic hooks with grandiose elements of classical music. Eventually, this style would be dubbed “baroque pop.” Unfortunately, the band’s time was brief, managing just two studio albums and a handful of singles before crushing under the weight of expectations.
Omnivore Recordings has just issued Strangers on a Train, featuring tracks from, not one, but two attempts at a Left Banke reunion, and the results stand up to anything the band did previously.
The first ten tracks come from 1978, when three of the four original Banke members (Steve Martin Caro, George Cameron, and Tom Finn) reconvened without primary songwriter Michael Brown. “Strangers on a Train” starts out subdued, and piano-led during the verses, before giving way to a rockin’ chorus. The only thing that dates it is the synthesizers near the middle of the song. But, there’s fantastic harmonies here that just pull you in.
Brown wrote most of their original material, but the remaining members show that they can capture the spirit without him. “Heartbreaker” is another strong track with an excellent chorus and great guitar solo – it comes off sounding like latter-day Badfinger.
Throughout, the real standout is Caro – he’s in fantastic voice, showing he can really shout, like on “Yesterday’s Love.” I dig the echoed effects and the tight harmonies on the chorus of “Hold on Tight, and “Lorraine” is an excellent ballad that stands next to their best work.
“And One Day” features a sophisticated chord structure and strings, while both “You Say” and “Queen of Paradise” add a gentle funk element that sounds like late-Seventies’ Boz Scaggs.
Originally recorded in 1978, these tracks weren’t actually released until 1986, on small labels in both the US and UK. Honestly, I’m not sure why it took eight years – these are really good songs.
The final six tracks come from another reunion, circa 2001-2. This time, Brown has returned as songwriter. These recordings bear a stronger, classical feel, but once again, Caro is still in fine voice. Let’s be clear, most of these seem unfinished – more like demos, and most lack drums.
“Airborne” features pounding piano and string accents, but Caro’s vocals are kind of buried in the mix, while “Buddy Steve (Long Lost Friend)” is the most-realized track here, featuring drums. But, when Caro goes into the falsetto part, his voice cracks (again, I doubt these were originally planned for release). The best cut here is “Until the End,” a grandiose, gorgeous ballad, with great strings.
Sadly, all the founding members of the Left Banke have passed away. Strangers on a Train is a welcome extra chapter to the brief, but colorful career of one of rock’s most under-appreciated bands. —Tony Peters