Playful and Sensual, Seductive: The Very Best of Daryl Hall & John Oates

By Daniel Garrett

The Very Best of Daryl Hall & John Oates
Sony Music Entertainment, 2008

Daryl Hall and John Oates are the kind of artists some people resent for their charm.  The same people who find some crude, dumb, loud, rough, violent thing to applaud dismiss the sensual, soulful appeal of the music of Hall and Oates.  It is an unintentional compliment.  Certainly, songs such as “Sara Smile” and “Rich Girl” require no apology: the former is as slow and sultry as anyone could want, seeming rooted in affection and attraction; and the latter, a critique of a spoiled girl, still carries something of its original air of social transgression.  In “Sara Smile,” Daryl Hall’s voice dips into, rests on, and comes out of emotion and groove; and in “Rich Girl,” a blend of soul and rock, the singing is expressive, and matter-of-fact rather than angry.  It takes confidence and talent to perform like that.

In the song “Back Together Again,” a rhythm-and-blues dance song with high-voiced harmonies, Hall and Oates, both singers and guitarists, seem to be celebrating the return of a musician.  (It could be a hat tipped to Philly soul, and Berry Gordy’s Motown.)  It could be a prophetic vision of their own muse, as together the two men became one of the most popular male duos of all time, but stopped playing together in the mid-1980s, only to reunite a few years later.  Most recently, each has done some solo recording, and recording with new collaborators; and they remain admired by their musical peers and by younger songwriters.  It is quite a history.  John Oates was born in New York, but Daryl Hall was born in Philadelphia.  The two men met at Temple University in Philadelphia, where they both were students in the late 1960s, and some of their early music was folk rock—and they moved to New York in the mid-1970s.  Their albums include Whole Oates, War Babies, and Bigger Than Both of Us, Voices, Beauty on a Back Street, Along the Red Ledge, Private Eyes, H-2-0, Rock N Soul Part 1, Big Bam, Boom, and Ooh Yeah!—and songs from some of those albums are included on The Very Best of Daryl Hall & John Oates.

“You were standing there, more than a little high, more than a little crazy,” sings the full-throated Hall, whose voice has a nearly inescapable sexiness, in the song “Don’t Change.”  In the song—which is atmospheric, melodramatic, emphatic, pleading—Hall begs his lover not to change his life.  Light, melodic, pleasant, catchy, with orchestral swirls and poppy percussion, “I Don’t Wanna Lose You” is more dance-influenced popular music than soul music, though such genre distinctions are just the sort of thing Hall and Oates existed to defy.  Their music messed with other people’s conceptions of the kind of music white boys should make—and of who should be singing soul sings.  The two men, one blond, one dark-haired, and one talkative, one quiet, might have been friends, or lovers, or workers joined in the pursuit of profit, or brothers, as the only thing their fans cared about was the music they made.  It did not matter what their relation was to each other, or their shade of skin.  Music was all.  Yet, their music began to change.  Why?  Had they become bored with the music, or bored with the people who loved their music?

“Kiss On My List” is a cheery love song, but it is quite nearly impersonal but for Daryl Hall’s vocal gifts.  I am inclined to think there is more emphasis than emotion in the song; and yet it sounds insistent, yearning.  Daryl Hall was almost as good a singer as anyone—but he did not project arrogance or sexual hunger; he did not possess a sinister mystique, the kind of thing that intrigues too many—whom do not think twice about dangerous appeal until it hurts them.  It can be easy to despise what seems happy or healthy (serenity appears simple, when it is an ideal very difficult to achieve).  The subject of the duo’s songs was often sensuous affection, but they also introduce what can go wrong.  The clapping beat in “Private Eyes” is the most attractive part of a song about love and surveillance, about a lover’s special perception.  “You got the body, now you want my soul,” sings Hall in “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do).”  Charming, with a nice rhythm, “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” also offers an impressive vocal performance.  “I’ll do almost anything that you want me to, but I can’t go for that,” Hall sings.  Yet, “Your Imagination,” centered on jealousy in a relationship, and somewhat New Wave in sound, is not alienating or dislikable but it also does not really compel belief.  It may have value as music experiment, as it seems to mix noisy rock guitar and psychedelia with smoother New Wave rhythms and tones, the music indicating a unique perspective.

Hall’s voice is playful and sensual, seductive, in “One on One,” given slow, spare treatment; whereas, “Family Man,” focused on rebuffed sexual temptation, is dramatic, expressive, but not particularly touching.  Daryl Hall seemed to be shifting from expressing feeling to dramatizing it.  In “Family Man,” the singing is self-conscious, theatrical, both deadpan and expressive, amid music that is not easy to shove in a single genre box.  With the theme of innocence and experience and a high school scenario, “Adult Education” has an interesting rhythm arrangement with cheerleader chanting, but the subject seems to have been approached from a distance.  “You’re out of touch, I’m out of time,” sings Hall in “Out of Touch,” which might be heard as a return to the duo’s early soul sound (the song’s narrator may be alienated from the lover he is talking to, but the singer has come closer to music listeners).  The line “Smoking guns, hot to the touch—they’d cool down if we didn’t use them so much” is a good one.  However, “Everything Your Heart Desires,” a song about a covetous person, the next and the last song in the retrospective collection, The Very Best of Daryl Hall & John Oates, seems an attempt to beat back dullness with a complicated music arrangement.  “Everything Your Heart Desires” has a busy—quirky and sweet—arrangement, with words advising practical appreciation, and singing that is both controlled and expressive, and it does achieve a distinctive theatricality.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.  He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art.  He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.