Record #461: Hall & Oates – H2O (1982)

h2oIn the last few months, after decades of ignorance, I’ve developed a strange fascination with the pop duo Hall & Oates. Judging by their enduring (and excellent) singles that still dominate “Hits of Yesterday and Today” stations, I had expected their output to stick pretty close to the middle of the road.

I was wrong.

While their discography has enough pop hooks to keep the most vanilla poptimists satisfied, there are some punky new wave edges, as I’ve come to expect from Misters Hall and Oates. And while H2O is the sleekest of the four D&H records I’ve gathered, there’s still a bit of grit to it.

“Crime Pays” has a loping shuffle like a Cars deep cut. “Art of Heartbreak” is led by a heavy drum beat and overdriven guitar riff. The six-minute war protest song “At Tension” is one David Byrne away from being a Talking Heads tune.

There’s also a healthy dose of straightforward pop tunes. “One on One” is a classic ballad if ever there was one.

But unlike the string of albums before this, H2O spends most of its time melding the competing elements of their sound into a cohesive unit. Nowhere is this more evident than the opening track, the evergreen hit “Maneater.” Its driving bassline and delayed sax line scream “new wave,” but once the vocals come in, the duo’s pop sensibilities take over. Similarly, B opener “Family Man” plays like a heavier Duran Duran song, but for the soulful vocals.

Listening through their catalog, I get the feeling that Hall & Oates have always wanted to go in a more punk/new wave direction. From X-Static through Private Eyes, most of their deep cuts had a bit more of an edge to them, while the singles played their pop pretty straight. But on H2O, they let their pop sensibilities get the better of them. And while there’s nothing as out there as “Hallafon” or as energetic as “Gotta Lotta Nerve,” there’s also nothing as vanilla as “Kiss On My List.” Instead of swinging wildly between their two poles, H2O finds them masterfully balancing the two. And for that, it’s a masterpiece.

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