The ‘60s baroque-pop kings’ buried ‘70s sessions return with some revelatory additions
The Left Banke made history with a string of chamber-pop milestones in the ‘60s but fell apart by decade’s end.
Their short, second life in the ‘70s is finally getting the attention it deserves through the reissue of Strangers on a Train, with some tantalizing bonus tracks sweetening the deal.
In 1978, three members of the band that gave the world “Walk Away Renee” and “Pretty Ballerina” came together for a new project. Singer Steve Martin Caro, bassist/singer Tom Finn, and drummer/singer George Cameron crafted an album’s worth of new material, but only a single was released until the album eventually crept into the daylight eight years later and quickly disappeared into the dustbin of history.
It was a case of bad timing twice over. To their credit, the reconstituted Left Banke (minus genius composer/keyboardist Michael Brown) had no intention of looking back on former glories. Strangers on a Train is no retro-’60s baroque-pop trip. Instead, their starting point seems to be somewhat in line with a pair of songs they’d contributed to a one-off soundtrack project for the 1972 movie Hot Parts, which positioned them as sort of an American answer to Badfinger.
As powerfully as they were still pulling that sound off in 1978, it wasn’t exactly the mode of the moment. By the time the record was actually released in ‘86, it was even further removed from the zeitgeist, and the odds of it finding an audience were roughly equivalent to the chances of icicles forming on a cactus. In the ‘80s, most people didn’t care about proto power pop almost as much as they didn’t care about ‘60s baroque-pop bands.
Thankfully, things have changed. There’s an audience with the ears to hear what’s great about Strangers on a Train, and there’s a label like Omnivore to give it the TLC it needs. Their ‘22 reissue not only makes the album sound better than ever, it adds previously unheard tunes from a later semi-reunion project.
When the band rocks it up on the outrageously hooky “Hold on Tight” and the title track, Caro’s ability to add some raunch to his characteristically pristine tones is remarkable, bringing Paul McCartney to mind. The McCartney connection comes through in the writing and production too, with ballads like “And One Day” and “Only My Opinion” bridging the gap between late-period Beatles and Wings, the former replete with a George Harrison-esque guitar solo.
VIDEO: The Left Banke “Hold On Tight”
Ironically, the album’s sole misstep is the one obvious attempt to keep pace with late-’70s trends. It’s also the only non-band composition. Written by a character called Shade Smith, who is said to have bankrolled the sessions, “Queen of the Paradise” is a cringeworthy attempt at disco-pop that could only have been given a thumbs-up by somebody with a coke spoon in the other hand.
But the biggest surprise on Strangers’ Omnivore edition is the bonus tracks. They’re demos cut in 2001-2002, with Michael Brown handling the songwriting and keyboards, Caro singing his heart out and Finn pitching in on bass and guitar.
The six tunes, which range from just voice and piano to full orchestrations, make it instantly clear just how important Brown’s melodic brilliance was to the Left Banke recipe. As great as some of the band’s sans-Brown compositions are, his presence brings things to a whole other level. If some of these songs had been given a proper production and unveiled for the public, it’s hard to imagine listeners in any era not having their heartstrings tugged.
AUDIO: The Left Banke “Airborne”
Equally remarkable is the fact that 35 years after the band’s heyday, Caro’s voice was still in fantastic shape, as remarkable an instrument as ever. Even when the occasional hint of age enters into his vocals, it only adds character and enhances his performance.
It’s tempting to imagine what might have been if either the late-’80s or early-2000s partnerships heard here had gotten a chance to develop. The Left Banke did finally have a bit of an 11th inning renaissance, though. A version of the band including Finn and Cameron, with Mike Fornatale on vocals, did an enviable job of presenting the band’s catalog in a series of shows, with Brown making brief guest appearances at a couple.
Now that Brown, Caro, Finn, and Cameron have all passed on, additions to their legacy like this one are invaluable. Get to know some strangers on a train—they might make your trip a lot more fun.
VIDEO: The Left Banke Strangers On A Train Omnivore trailer