What makes One Eighty worth its price is the hits, which sound as good as ever.
In a review of a 1980 concert at Los Angeles’ Greek Theater, the Los Angeles Times marked an unlikely crossroads of cultural references. A band whose early records tended toward prog-rock and whose lyrics were inspired by Kurt Vonnegut was the headliner. Watermelon-smashing comedian Gallagher was the opening act.
The concert did not go well; critic Steve Pond noted that while the band’s studio albums revealed a confident, versatile group, on stage it appeared uncertain. Still, the group had good intentions and an impressive range of influences. Front man David Pack told the Los Angeles Times in 1978 about his interest in Keith Jarrett, King Crimson, and Leonard Bernstein; the band even took part in the debut performance of Bernstein’s Mass.
Would you believe that band was Ambrosia? The group made such ‘70s yacht rock staples as “How Much I Feel.” But is the group any good over the length of an album? It won‘t cost you much to try out One Eighty, the band’s fourth album; in fact, the local shop that’s home to my favorite dollar bin did this one even better: it was in a pile of free records left outside the storefront. Leaving behind Billy Joel albums and selecting this group known more for singles than albums, was it even worth that price?
Maybe! Released in 1980, and named not for a 180-degree turn but for the fact that it was recorded in January of that year, the album includes two of the three Ambrosia songs that you are likely to know. “You’re the Only Woman (You & I)” and “Biggest Part of Me” are perfectly pleasant examples of soft rock.
Pop stars like Hall & Oates and Michael McDonald, often dismissed as lightweights in their ‘70s heydays, have received a measure of critical reassessment; but has anybody tried to reevaluate Ambrosia? This is a band nobody has ever seemed to care about. Even the Steve Hoffman forums, where threads about the sonic qualities of any given David Bowie reissue are likely to go on for hundreds of replies, can muster only modest interest: a 2009 thread asking about CD reissues of the band’s albums ended after a mere 10 messages (and as was often the case with American soft-rock, we can thank the Japanese for caring enough to reissue its albums on CD).
Ambrosia is from Los Angeles, of course, t hough in the band’s early incarnation amid prog-rock trappings—if you can imagine that (Alan Parsons produced one of its early albums)—it was mistaken for an English group. The Hartford Courant called its music “bubblewimp,” but admitted that certain album tracks showed off a surprisingly more aggressive band. And would you expect a group that sounds like founding members of the Michael McDonald fan club to quote E.E. Cummings? That’s what it does on opener, “Ready,” which is a crackling almost-power-pop number that makes you think, hey maybe Ambrosia was more than its hits.
But such generic hard rock (and generic hard rock titles) as “Shape I’m In” and “Rock ‘n a Hard Place” aren’t exactly the food of the gods, whether they be of prog or the yacht. The pedestrian rocker “Cryin’ in the Rain” is typical of its level of discourse, with the uninspirational verse, “Lookin’ for affection?/ Look in my direction/ Honey, don’t you hesitate.”
Worse, the plodding, synth-heavy beats of “Kamikaze” start to make you wish Ambrosia had, despite Pack’s insistence that it wasn’t trying to go commercial, more consistently pursued the blue-eyed soul formula that sold so many records. (In concert, such indulgences were apparently worse: in his review of Ambrosia at the Greek, Pond noted what must have been the show’s low point: “This is 1980; is it too much to ask that drum solos are kept short enough that the rest of the band doesn’t have to leave?”)
For the most part, Ambrosia can’t rock. The exception is the skinny-tie rocker “No Big Deal.” Though its lyrics are as generic as its title, the band generates a credible vibe Huey Lewis would have been happy to cop (and that’s not meant as an insult).
Still, what makes One Eighty worth its price is the hits, which sound as good as ever. Although Michael McDonald isn’t on the album, that may as well be him singing backup on “You’re the Only Woman (You & I).” While its melody doesn’t quite resolve, its sentiment crooned over a limited range that suggests it’s delivered by someone half asleep, the closing track finds the band finally reaching its peak. You just have to wander through a wilderness of mostly subpar rock and mildly bloated prog to get there. Ambrosia’s best single, “Biggest Part of Me,” is one of the quintessential soft rock hits, the white-soul harmonies and El-Lay slick musicianship coming together for a Platonic ideal of late ‘70s pop. And for free? It’s a bargain, even if you only keep going back to that one easygoing memory of skating rinks and transistor radios.