Underappreciated Music File: The Left Banke

In the mid to late 1960s you couldn't spit without slathering a new, promising Baroque pop band with your sticky saliva. As a result of the Simon & Garfunkel-Moody Blues-Beatles effect every mop-topped group of kids tried assembling an airy, chamber-element ornamented, pop music consortium. The Left Banke, who formed in '65 in New York City, fit perfectly into the mold: not overly handsome, musically talented, and precisely psychedelic enough to click with the burgeoning and popular drug scene. And they capably composed those Michael Pinder/Lennon cross-over rock pieces that remind us of a movement without becoming unlistenably stale. But, sadly, the propagation of baroque-mop-topped-Brit-influenced bands at that time was so great that some amazing, catchy and clearly influential work went overlooked by the annals of rock history. So, I present The Left Banke with their biggest album Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina as the next entrant of the Underappreciated Music File.

Released in 1967, Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina creatively takes its title from the names of the two chart-climbing singles that brought The Left Banke its initial fame. Both songs are pop masterpieces, short time-wise (roughly 2:40 each), with full sound, thoughtful lyrics and perfectly arranged baroque notes by flute, pan pipe and harpsichord. The songs are just as solid as any Moody Blues track, with vocals that sound quite similar, but with less of the heavy-handed sentimentality about love that marks other baroque music. The Left Banke, in two singles capture more desperation and frustration in their pop than the more popular bands of their time. The style is essentially reminiscent, but the music holds a darkness that feels altogether progressive and real (in the "actual human expression of emotion" sense). For never gaining immense popularity, The Left Banke effectively redesigned baroque pop.

Mixed into the album, beyond those two "hits" are "Barterers and Their Wives" and "Shadows Breaking over my Head" both of which should be more popularly known because of the elegant instrumentation and current-indie styling. The sound in these two songs, and really the entire album, feels directly influential to current greats like Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses, and Grizzly Bear (on some tracks). Rousing harmonies, dark lyrics about doubt and fear, and complex compositions. The opening to "I've Got Something on My Mind" (track 4) was sampled and used by Jens Lekman for his 2003 song "Black Cab". Even when a band this great is swept under the rug, they maintain an influence beyond their short run. And listening to The Left Banke reminds me most directly of my first experiences with Big Star (the current reissue band of the moment). Some of the greatest songwriting accomplished in the late 60s and early 70s came to us by way of unsung creators, and didn't have the marketed sex-appeal of The Rolling Stones, or the next-door looks of The Beach Boys, or the by-design creation of The (early specifically) Beatles. Like Big Star, The Left Banke only released two albums in its prime, but two albums loaded with genius is better than 25 where the second half casually slides into mediocrity. (I'm looking at you Jagger!) Check out The Left Banke and thank me later.

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