Last year, while researching an article on Lisa Loeb’s first album, I found myself in the apartment/recording studio used by Loeb and her producer (and beau), Juan Patino. And there it was, lying innocently on a coffee table: Living in the 90s.
”You know how it is,” Patino said with a sheepish smile. ”It’s two in the morning, you’re a little drunk, and you see this ad on TV and go, ‘Hey, I have to have that song!”’
It’s okay, Juan. Anyone who’s channel-surfed past midnight has been seduced by those ads trumpeting All the Original Hits! All the Original Artists! Not Available in Stores! Call Now! Known as ”broadcast packages,” TV-marketed albums garner little respect, perhaps unfairly. Last March, Freedom Rock — a ’70s boogie-rock set best remembered for its hilarious, low-rent ads featuring two ersatz stoners — was certified gold (sales of 500,000 copies). Since its success helped launch the now-booming era of the broadcast package, Freedom Rock is officially among the most influential albums ever made, right alongside Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. K-tel, which in the late ’60s pioneered the selling of albums via television, has taken the camp-appeal veneration of TV albums one step further: It has actually reissued a handful of its ’70s cheese-fest LP compilations (with titles like Believe in Music and Out of Sight) on CD.
Eight-tracks are out, CDs are in — otherwise, little has changed with telemarketed albums. A half dozen companies, most of them ad agencies that license and package the songs, still pump out tubular sells in many genres. Packaging remains low budget; don’t expect liner notes or artist photos. But how does the new crop compare with its predecessors? A few late nights, many toll-free calls, and several large credit-card bills later (prices below are for CDs), I had my answers.
For starters, Zamfir and his pan flute are gone — actual classical music, it seems, is the new Muzak. On Placido Domingo’s Songs of Love, the One Tenor bellows ballads like ”Love Story,” ”Danny Boy,” and the dubious love song ”Over the Rainbow.” The effect is not unlike the sight of a linebacker playing croquet. (At roughly $25, including postage, it’s also a questionable bargain. Most two-disc broadcast albums start at $25; factor in $4 to $5 shipping and a roughly six-week wait, and you may pay more than you would for similar compilations sold in stores.) Remember that old TV-album ad in which actor John Williams purred about a ”priceless collection” of classical music? The modern-day version of that set is the two-volume Classical Thunder, which compiles symphonic McNuggets from ”Also Sprach Zarathustra” to ”The Firebird Suite.” It even includes liner notes, rock-fan-friendly ones that name-drop Metallica and Emerson, Lake and Palmer as reference points for newcomers.
Beware deceptive titles and packaging, though. The ’80s-leaning Cool Rock, which opens with Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes’ ”Up Where We Belong,” is neither cool nor rock. Instrumental Gold is even more disappointing. Instead of riff-happy smashes like Edgar Winter’s ”Frankenstein,” its two discs are stuffed with florid orchestral and soundtrack hits like Henry Mancini’s ”Love Theme From Romeo & Juliet.” Maple trees would kill for this much sap.
Broadcast packages were among the first to tap into the sales potential of ’70s and ’80s oldies. Not surprisingly, they’re now pioneering instant nostalgia. Indicative of the quickening pace of pop culture, Living in the 90s and its follow-up, ’90s Style, return us to a faraway time — of, say, three years ago — when M.C. Hammer was a mogul and Digable Planets were fusing hip-hop and jazz. With their emphasis on the biodegradable likes of Color Me Badd, Skid Row, and Wilson Phillips, neither set highlights the ’90s I want to remember. That said, the commercial for ’90s Style — in which a toothy Gen-X actor sells us on ”grungy rock gods!” while incongruously flashing a heavy-metal hand gesture — is funnier than the first four months of Suddenly Susan.
By my absolutely unscientific survey, it’s clear that the love song still reigns in the land of broadcast packages. My pile of mail-order discs is top-heavy with collections titled Night Songs, Lost in Love, and Reflections of Love, each with a cover that could double as a Hallmark ”Thinking of You” card. In a perverse way, these sets function as an alternate-universe history, in which the kings and queens of pop are not Elvis and Aretha, but Rick Astley, Linda Ronstadt, and Peter Cetera. Even relatively edgy (for this world) artists like Ric Ocasek and Jefferson Starship are represented by their wimpiest songs.
With their emphasis on plush, down-pillow arrangements and groveling sentiments, these collections are numbing, like owning a radio stuck on a Lite FM station. Overlap is common: Mr. Big’s ”To Be With You,” Rita Coolidge’s ”We’re All Alone,” and Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville’s ”Don’t Know Much” are among the many easy-listening tranquilizers that crop up on several albums. Subtle distinctions do exist, though. Night Songs wallows in choice mellow ’60s and ’70s gold, while the slightly more au courant All for Love dares to include Babyface’s ”When Can I See You Again” and Susanna Hoffs’ unjustly forgotten ”My Side of the Bed.”
Granted, criticizing albums of innocuous love songs may be missing the big picture. Unintentionally, they make a convincing case against the infuriating idea, recently put forth by The New York Times, that pop songwriting is a dead art form. Smarmy or not, ballads like Dan Fogelberg’s ”Longer,” the Commodores’ ”Three Times a Lady,” and Nilsson’s ”Without You” — all of which appear on at least one of these sets — are destined for piano bars in the year 2010. Somewhere, the founders of K-tel will be smiling.
Songs of Love: C+
Classical Thunder: B+
Cool Rock: C
Instrumental Gold: D
Living in the 90s and ’90s Style: C+
Night Songs: B
All for Love: B-