Catchy reminders of ‘70s pop hits that never were.
The mystique of the private press musician often runs to that of inspired amateurs such as Donnie and Joe Emerson or downright outsiders such as Lewis. But the latest resurrection from the perhaps inaptly named label Out-sider taps the subgenre that Numero Group captured on the private press anthology Seafaring Strangers: yacht rock. But despite a few audible seams, San Francisco musician Matthew Larkin Cassell’s two self-released albums are a more consistently appealing set of ‘70s AOR.
The 1977 album Pieces establishes Larkin’s smooth blue-eyed soul and light R&B/jazz inflections. You could hardly have a more quintessential yacht rock title than opener “Rendezvous.” An acoustic-guitar lick launches a smooth melody supporting laissez-faire lyrics: “Run with me from the lights/ Name a place we might/ Rendezvous.” It’s soulfully executed ‘70s pop-jazz, even taking a time out for an electric piano solo. The songs aren’t all gold—album closer “In My Life” relies too heavily on its ordinary title—but this is well-played make-out pop—he even sings French on “Écoutez Moi” (“Listen to Me”), private-press style.
That private-press part might ordinarily mean music made in the basement for use in the basement. Yet the high sound quality, although not as slick and trebly as commercial recordings of the era, is a good indicator that this wasn’t recorded in a basement after all, but in a professional studio, namely San Jose’s Music Annex. Cassell, who plays pianos and guitar, led a Bay Area trio, and bassist Gary Arluck and especially drummer James Hobson fill out a thoroughly professional West Coast pop group. Cassell’s trio opened for the Tubes and Sylvester, and if the album had been distributed in a wider region there’s no reason it wouldn’t have gotten airplay. Maybe the right producer would have given Cassell and company just enough sheen to take it to the next level, but that never happened.
The core trio is augmented by horns and backing vocals on the 1978 album Matt the Cat, which starts with the slightly sinister “More,” a hulking chord sequence (that suits the big, potentially stalking black cat on the cover) to a resentful lyric: “You want to make more/ More love/ So you can take love/ More than before.” Though a drum fill misses the mark, Cassell’s guitar solo is more intense than anything on the previous album, perhaps inspired by women troubles. That creeping sentiment emerges again on “Close to You Tonight,” in which the singer eyes a woman across the street and, as she gets closer, gets ready to pounce: “Here you are/ I am beside you now close enough to touch you/ But not yet in sight.”
Fortunately, sweeter lyrics prevail on such tracks as “Hold Me” and “All I’m Missing Is You.” And in what may be the catchiest hook on the two albums, “Fly Away” hits all Cassell’s blue-eyed soul strengths. The songs here are stronger, but the more ambitious instrumentation doesn’t always pay off—a backing vocal is a little off here, a sax solo is too rudimentary there. More than on Pieces, Matt the Cat could have used a producer to bring all the playing up to the level of the writing.
Cassell’s two albums were long forgotten until crate diggers discovered them in the ‘00s and began tapping them for breaks. But Pieces and Matt the Cat are both worthy of rediscovery as catchy reminders of ‘70s pop hits that never were.