Yacht rock, the subgenre retroactively assigned to a kind of slick, commercial pop that evokes big moustaches, tropical shirts and laid-back, beer soaked parties on the marina, is for the most part the music of seasoned session musicians. The ur-yacht rocker is the distinct instrument of session vocalist Michael McDonald, who never has a musical hair out of place. But beyond the well-heeled El Lay musicians who subsided on coke and Steely Dan records, a whole world of forgotten, semi-professional and amateur performers were inspired by this catchy white soul. As Numero Group’s Wayfaring Strangers imprint looks at private press country and folk-rock, Seafaring Strangers: All the Right Places looks at a subset of yacht rock that often sounds as if somebody mussed up McDonald’s perfect musical hair.

There are seaworthy would-be hits here. Johnny Gamboa’s “That Good Old Feeling Back Again” begins with a soulful cello section that’s an unusual foil for a smooth voice and layered acoustic guitars. If Gamboa had emerged from a less competitive scene, he might have had a shot, but in Los Angeles (and you can hear just a little bit of Love in this), he was just one of many aspiring songwriters. Gary Marks, whose sensitive voice could barely be more unassuming, shifts the melody of the lightly funky acoustic ballad “Sailing” into unexpected turns, finding a surprising hook with the unlikely verse, “melting all of the days and night together.” Marks’ 1974 album Gatheringwas released on his own label, but he got some unlikely help from Carla Bley, who distributed the album through her Jazz Composer of America imprint.

Among the yacht rock unknowns is the all-but untraceable Calvin Johnson (no relation to the Beat Happening front man), whose outsider-disco “Dance of Love” comes from what is known as a tax-scam album. These were released by companies that would press a small number of records, declare a larger number of units in their books and write the non-existent product off as a tax loss. The musical content came from unsolicited demos and were often released with fake names and without the knowledge of the submitting musician. Hence, nobody knows who Johnson really is. The song’s inspired disheveled lounge-act is what you want from private press yacht: something that isn’t just second-hand Doobies but marches to its own idiosyncratic drum.

There’s at least one ringer on the album. The great Ned Doheny is nobody’s idea of a lost private press legend. He recorded for a major label, Columbia, albeit one that had no idea what to do with him. “Before I Thrill Again” has a kind of definitive yacht rock lyric: “Someone stop me. Before I thrill again.” Doheny’s light funk, collected on an essential Numero Group anthology, is among the finer examples of the subgenre but sets an unfair bar for his comp-mates.

Some of these tracks suffer from the lower production values, and since yacht rock is defined by a certain professionalism, off kilter examples may be off-putting. The pleasant mid-tempo disco of Jim Spencer’s “Wrap Myself Up in Your Love” opens the set with a track typical of its flaws. Its sultry, lower-register guitar riff provides a strong hook, but Spencer’s faux-Al Jarreau vibrato sounds forced and his lyric borders on parody: “I want to wrap myself up in your loving/ Drink sweet wine from your skin.” Perhaps it’s not surprising that this was an anomaly in the catalog of a Milwaukee-born singer who recorded folk albums and was a member of a psych band called Major Arcana. Spencer died of a stroke at 39, but not before leaving behind a varied body of work and producing one of the great private press rock albums, Anonymous’ Inside the Shadow.

While that’s a storied near-miss, “Madam Operator,” by a Madness unrelated to the famous ska band, is simply second-hand. Its melody borrows from Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4,” its tone owes something to Bobby Caldwell’s blue-eyed soul staple “What You Won’t Do for Love” and its long-distance narrative goes all the way back to Chuck Berry’s “Memphis.” This is earnest, ersatz pastiche that’s enjoyable but never transcends its obvious sources.

The promise of yacht rock may send you down some wrong unknown turns, but the hard reality is that the most reliable form of it may be single tracks on otherwise forgettable dollar bin albums. The real Nuggets of the yacht rock era continues to the be Too Slow to Disco series, now in its fourth volume of carefully curated anthologies (the most recent of which compiles a private press gem originally reissued by Numero Group, Archie James Cavanaugh’s “Take it Easy,” which would have been a standout on this album). Seafaring Strangers is as carefully packaged and meticulously researched as any Numero Group release, and its grooves are packed with fascinating stories. Unfortunately, the music isn’t as consistently interesting as its background.

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