One day in the Fall of 1982, I came back from my periodic trip to the record stores of the Village near Ball State University’s campus with three albums: Peter Gabriel’s fourth self-titled album that his record company insisted on calling Security by slapping a sticker on the shrink wrapping enveloping the album, Joe Jackson’s now-classic pop-new wave-rock take on New York City late night jazz called Night and Day and an inconspicuous Daryl Hall & John Oates albums called H2O. Of the three, I was most excited at the time about getting Peter Gabriel, since I had LOVED his previous album. I was also excited about Joe Jackson, because each new release of his was such a great advance upon the previous release. The third one, Hall & Oates’ new album, was my purchase because I had loved them so much from the previous year’s concert that I knew I had to pick it up. Those were the days when an album would be on sale for five or six dollars when it was first released, so you could always stock up on some new ones back in the day.
Can you imagine my surprise when I finally put H2O on my Technics turntable only to discover that the dynamic duo of the Eighties, Daryl Hall & John Oates, had actually created their third classic album in a row, with this one being the best one of the trio. Finally, we got to hear a great touring band playing great music in the studio. The three years of this group of musicians constantly touring were finally paying off. Finally, Hall & Oates had the right band to bring their mix of pop, rock and soul together seamlessly.
Now, much has been made about the title of the album, from its release date to present time. H2O has been interpreted as being there are twice as many Daryl Hall songs as John Oates. Whatever the formula, it was working at the time. And those songs, be they written by Hall; Oates; Hall & Hall’s former girlfriend Sara Allen; Hall & Sara’s sister Janna Allen; or some other combination of the four, with or without the late great bassist T-Bone Wolk, the songs were magic.
The album opened with the first song, and biggest hit on the album, with that catchy yet haunting bassline from the magical hands of Wolk, leading into a sax teaser by Charlie DeChant, all acting as the appetizer for Daryl Hall’s lyrics about this dangerous vixen who has ripped the hearts out of many of a young suitor called “Maneater”. This is a classic Hall & Oates song in that it pays tribute to their Philly soul and Motown backgrounds all the while bringing everything into the Eighties in order to create a timeless pop song. During a time of songs about men stalking former lovers (The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” comes to mind as the best example), it is interesting to get a play on a nearly black widow-type of woman who doesn’t necessarily kill her men, but leaves them brokenhearted and wishing they were dead. For the record, this song represents a collaboration between Hall, Oates and Sara Allen.
The album’s mood is maintained by another song about a woman who breaks hearts called “Crime Pays”. This song is a stripped down version of “Maneater”, in that the song relies on mostly keyboards and vocals by Hall and background vocals by Oates. This is a good lead-in to “Art of Heartbreak”, yet another woman on the prowl to break a man’s heart that features more band interplay and, thus, a perfect concert song that could be stretched to highlight each musician’s skills, especially bassist Wolk, saxophonist DeChant and guitar god G.E. Smith.
All of this sets up the ballad “One on One”, which attempts to forge a little basketball imagery with some bedroom metaphor. Being a former basketball coach and player, I can appreciate the effort, but I’d rather let myself go to the soul slow-dancing groove that the band has set, complete with another sax solo by “Mr. Casual” himself, Charlie DeChant, who may be the most underrated musician on the album, besides drummer Mickey Curry who continues to set a solid rhythmic foundation for each song.
Side One of the album ends with what might be considered a typical Hall & Oates song, “Open All Night”. Now, what I mean by that statement is the song can be confidently lined up with “Sara Smile”, “She’s Gone” & “Everytime You Go Away” as being part of the soulful ballads that the duo was known for.
When you flip over the album, you get a taste of the rock side of the band with the first song “Family Man”. The song lyrically fits the mood of the other songs with the dangerous woman set to destroy a man’s life. The song is set to a jaunty pop-rock beat complete with a tasteful screaming guitar solo from Smith. This song could almost be a Cheap Trick song if the rockier side were played up and the soul side downplayed.
“Family Man” gives way to Oates’ “Italian Girls”, another song on the rock side of the group. Lyrically, it is nice to hear John lamenting Italian Girls in much the same way the Beach Boys immortalized California girls twenty years earlier. The song is another song whose restraint works well within the context of the album, but you know its itching to break loose in concert. The third song is “Guessing Games”, which falls into the typical upbeat Hall & Oates song, much like “Rich Girl” or “Kiss on My List”. It is simply a pleasant pop-rock song that has a ear-worm ability to get stuck in your head.
Again, proving that Side Two is the rock side of the album, the duo places “Delayed Reaction”, which honestly is a slightly weaker song. I have always considered the song to remain one of their little played deep cuts. Next, the album bounces back with a John Oates song called “At Tension”. This song is a really good rock song, the kind you would pull out to show how big of a Hall & Oates fan you are. It is a moody rock song reminiscent of those slow-boiling songs that work great in concert because it is perfect for the musicians to strut their talents. You stick in the middle of the set list, use some moody lighting and a little smoke machine action, all the while the band grooves through solos and building the tension throughout the song. This is the one true rock song on the album in the purest sense, and it rocks as hard as most of the stuff the hard rock crews were putting out. Now, the album has been set up for its ending.
Unfortunately, it is not the ending I was hoping for. The album ends with “Go Solo”, which seems to be conveying Daryl Hall’s desire to do another solo album (as a matter of fact, he will release his second solo album four years later in 1986). The song is a very good song, but the way the album was sequenced, I was honestly expecting to be blown away with a song like Daryl did with Robert Fripp on Fripp’s 1977 album Exposure called “You Lit Me Up I’m a Cigarette”. “Go Solo” would have worked better earlier in the album, not as the closer. The other song I mentioned is a flat out thrash-metal, punk-like pop song that predicted much of the career of Green Day or The Offspring as anything else released during the punk years.
Still, if that is my complaint, H2O must still be one helluva album, and it is. Where, Voices from 1980 was Hall & Oates absorbing the sounds of New York City into their pop-rock-soul sound, and Private Eyes took those lessons to higher levels of sophistication by strengthening their pop-rock credentials, H2O put it all together. This album is an overlooked classic that should be remembered by all lovers of music.