Too Slow to Disco series is essential for the pop connoisseur
In 1972, guitarist Lenny Kaye compiled the now legendary garage rock tracks on the first Nuggets anthology just several years after the psychedelic era peaked. Berlin crate digger Marcus Liesenfeld, aka DJ Supermarkt, is the Lenny Kaye for the yacht rock set. His latest anthology, Too Slow to Disco 3, is the strongest yet in a series of consistently entertaining comps that seamlessly blend the familiar and the obscure. It’s another convincing argument for the musical potency of this laid-back and frequently maligned subgenre.
After a wealth of K-Tel albums and Have a Nice Day packages, it has taken decades for reissue producers to get a bead on music that is perhaps typified by the unmistakable instrument of Michael McDonald. Emerging from its hirsute source, it’s as if a grizzly bear was given the gift of song. When Steely Dan needed a distinct timbre for “Peg” or Christopher Cross needed a definitive voice to convey, “such a long way to go,” that singing bear would lumber out of the woods and let out its melodic, studio-polished howl. This is the sound that launched a thousand yachts, and Too Slow to Disco 3 continues in the How Do You Are label’s mission to scour the pop wilderness for unlikely selections. The series imagines a world of yacht pop that we’ve never heard before, with deep cuts, foreign releases and private press recordings that sound like theme songs from forgotten ’80s sitcoms. This time there’s a ringer, one that fits so surprisingly well with its strange bedfellows that you may forget that it’s by the ur-jam band.
The album begins with the definitively laid-back ballad “Is it You?” Its upper register vocals come not from McDonald but from jazz fusion guitarist Lee Ritenour, who croons the quintessential yacht pop question, “Are you somebody to love?” Every element here is typical of marina rock: soaring strings, a lightly soulful horn chart and a mellow, El Lay slick guitar solo all contribute to a mood that is completely familiar and entirely professional, a precisely fine-tuned soundscape that resembles radio hits you may have grown up avoiding but which sound fresh and irresistible now.
Liesenfeld taps catalogs of artists you may think you know. The ringer here is The Grateful Dead, whose disco-fied “Shakedown Street” has long been on the Too Slow wish list. It says something about the compiler’s dedication that he hounded The Dead’s corporate headquarters for four years before they agreed to license the track for this series. And while Deadheads may not see this as a compliment, it’s a seamless fit.
Although McDonald doesn’t make an appearance here, other Steely Dan associates do, like saxophone player Cornelius Bumpus, who checks in with the lightly funky “Inside You,” and guitarist Larry Carlton, whose “Where Did You Come From” floats on a delightfully tropical riff. David Gates moves on from his sensitive singer-songwriter mode in Bread for the concisely smooth love of “Silky,” which clocks in at 2:39 with a modestly catchy melody that will linger much longer.
Earlier volumes in the series tapped radio hits by Rickie Lee Jones and Nicolette Larson, but its real beauty lies in its knack for choosing lesser-known tracks that should have been hits. Led by Philadelphia fusion guitarist Doug Markley, The Markley Band’s mid-tempo ballad “Fallin’ in Love” could have topped the R&B charts in 1982, but it wasn’t even released as a single. The Fifth Avenue Band’s forgotten “One Way or the Other” was released as a single by Reprise, but its infectious blue-eyed soul may not be what the label was going for in 1969. Maybe the best shoulda-been-a-contender is Archie James Cavanaugh’s “Take it Easy,” a perfect piece of Christian light-funk from Alaska. Coming from a strong album that was recently reissued (read our revisit here), it was originally released in 1980 and has caught a second wind, appearing on a Numero Group compilation and in the 2015 indie comedyThe Overnight. The song represents a bit of a missed opportunity for Numero, whose recent yacht rock comp Seafaring Strangers could have used its polished, undeniable presence.
The set’s one misstep may be Jeremy Spencer Band’s “Cool Breeze,” whose guitar line and almost-husky female singer owes a bit too much to Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon.” But it’s an apt echo for an album that sheds new light on what some see as a dark period for music. Each of the volumes in the Too Slow to Disco series is essential for the pop connoisseur; the latest is yet another endearing collection that charts a Top 40 that never was.