(originally written 1989)
Emitt Rhodes' 1970 Dunhill debut is perhaps the purest pop confection ever crafted. Where other artists might offer a single lyrical departure (Black Vinyl Shoes' "Capital Gain" comes to mind) or one number that replaces pop formalism with something, say, a bit more raucous (JOHN CALE's "Macbeth" perhaps, from the otherwise mock-pop-perfect Paris 1919), Emitt Rhodes' unrelenting pursuit of the pop melody and lyric--the simple pleasures of love, the sadness of loss-- remains unrivaled. Emerging from southern California's MERRY GO ROUND--a fully realized take on the Mersey Sound, complete with matching suits and mock English accents--Emitt Rhodes is inspired by HARRY NILSSON and PAUL McCARTNEY at their least contrived. Yet by the time Paul wrote "I Will," we all knew it was an exercise in style. Emitt Rhodes beats McCartney at his own game: for nineteen year old Rhodes, "I Will" was the real thing.
Intricate melodies and countermelodies, bass work this side of Abbey Road, and the warm, recorded-at-home feel of the album add to the air of quiet genius which is displayed in each track. The opening track, "With My Face to the Floor," sets the stage for astounding variations on its simple and elegant Music Hall theme: straight piano-dominated rhythms overlaid with understated drums, and acoustic and electric guitar lines that, while not afraid to take the spotlight, never hog it. "She's Such a Beauty" and "You Take the Dark Out of the Night," are similarly structured, involving deceptively simple rhythms and ornate vocal arrangements. On the slower ballads, "Long Time No See," "Live Till You Die," and "You Should Be Ashamed," Rhodes never resorts to gimmickry or overarrangement, instead demonstrating a precocious restraint for such a young studio-based musician. Indeed, the arrangements, despite (or because of) their obvious complexity, need no studio magic to embellish their effect; although an element of insularity is inevitable in a one-man project such as this, Rhodes makes no attempt to patchwork the recording with clutter. Simple without being simplistic, touching without being cloying, EMITT RHODES is an unassuming masterpiece.
In a mind-boggling move of corporate greed, A&M Records released another Emitt Rhodes LP simultaneously with EMITT RHODES. Recorded as an outgrowth of his work with the MERRY GO ROUND, The American Dream suffers only from experimentation with alternative forms. Apart from a mildly embarrassing trek into Appalachia, and a not-so-successful excursion into calypso, the album is another showcase, with fully successful rip-offs of "Penny Lane" and "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite," but also thoroughly evocative songs of young love ("Pardon Me"), death ("Someone Died") and life ("Come Ride, Come Ride"). Recorded in a professional studio this time, the record contains some lovely string and brass arrangements which cushion Rhodes' pleasant tenor.
With two stunning albums under his belt, Emitt Rhodes' success seemed a sure thing. Unfortunately, unlike GUNS AND ROSES or BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, Rhodes' was not yet a household name. In effect, the two albums cancelled each other out. A major record company may recover, but not so Emitt Rhodes. With his record company forcing Rhodes to produce two LPs per year, his two subsequent outings, Mirror and Farewell to Paradise were unfocussed and lacking in confidence, tapping less BEATLES-era Paul and more solo-era George. Cluttered arrangements and underdeveloped melodies hardly benefit from their thin treatment.
There is little doubt that, given the proper corporate support, Emitt Rhodes could have brought his awesome talents to the world. As it stands, we at least have three superlative albums (one a bona fide masterpiece), and a reminder that one act of corporate greed can have far-reaching consequences. Miraculously, EMITT RHODES is available on CD from One Way Records, Albany, New York. A career retrospective was released in 1994, recapitulating most of the One Way release, and all but ignoring his superlative early output.