Recommended Albums #86

The Left Banke: Strangers On a Train (1978/1986)

Sometimes the spell of enchantment cast by a band’s music belies the tumult of the creative process.

The Left Banke, led by 17-year-old songwriter/pianist/whiz kid Michael Brown and his father, producer/arranger Harry Lookofsky, pioneered so-called baroque pop with a pair of gorgeous mid-60’s hits–“Walk Away Renee” and “Pretty Ballerina”–inlaid with the sounds of harpsichord, woodwinds, and a small string section.

The music was as innovative as it was sublime.

But the band’s short lifespan is testament to the fact that all was not harmonious in the studio.

Brown left during the recording of their second album, frustrated by the challenges of reproducing their complex sound live with young and inexperienced bandmates.

And his bandmates were frustrated with Brown, who wasn’t the easiest guy to get along with.

But like other bands who produced enduring and seminal work, the Left Banke had an extended afterlife, including short-lived reunions, one-off singles and even commercial jingles.

Strangers On a Train (titled Voices Calling in Britain) was recorded sans Brown by the remaining trio of vocalist Steve Martin-Caro, drummer George Cameron and bassist Tim Finn. The recordings are from 1978, though the album didn’t see release until ten years later.

Finn had signed a publishing deal with Camex music and recruited his former bandmates to fill out his demos at the suggestion of the company, who encouraged him to turn it into a Left Banke project.

It’s notable that Finn never considered the recordings to be “finished” even when released in ’86 under the Left Banke name.

George Cameron, Steve Martin-Caro, Tom Finn

That said, Strangers On a Train is worth hearing for fans of Badfinger, Big Star and even the Raspberries.

“Hold On Tight” could be an Eric Carmen power pop rave-up from ’72.

“And One Day” is a delicate, heart-tugging ballad of lost love featuring Martin-Caro’s McCartney-esque delivery.

And “Only My Opinion” lands squarely in Badfinger/Big Star territory, with tasty guitar fills and plaintive vocals.

The 2022 re-release of the album includes 6 additional tracks–Michael Brown demos recorded with Steve Martin-Caro on vocals–offering a tantalizing glimpse at what might have been had the band reunited one last time.

A moot point since Steve Martin-Caro and Tom Finn died in 2020, following George Cameron’s passing in 2018 and Michael Brown’s in 2015.

But the 1978 recordings–despite Michael Brown’s absence and the fact that the band had moved on from its trademark 60’s baroque pop adornments–sounds like a lost piece of the 70’s pop rock story.

If you miss that sound and have worn out your too-small collection of Badfinger and Big Star records, here’s some new old music for you.

Listen to: “Hold On Tight”

Listen to: “And One Day”

Listen to: “Only My Opinion”

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