Private Eyes (1981) ****
Topping the charts with their blue-eyed state-of-the-'80s soul style with the previous year's Voices, on the followup Oates & Hall perfect that style with even more artistic and commercial success. The title track may work a similar piano-pop new wave vein as "Kiss On My List," but it's arguably even catchier, adding a naggingly sleek guitar hook to the bounce. And in contrast to Voices, the material is much more consistent, with no real low points: Oates' "Mano a Mano," may be cheese but it's winsomely likeable cheese, and the closer "Some Men," may be a slightly irritating rocker, but only slightly, and those two songs are really as bad as it gets, which is to say not bad at all. "I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)," was the other #1 hit, and since I was still in the first grade in 1981 I have no idea whether that song coined the annoying catchphrase or merely copped it. Either way, it's slick mainstream R&B that's the rare bird that gives slick mainstream R&B a good name, with its slow silky-grind funk groove and insinuating chorus. It's easy to see why H&O had the knack for hitting the charts with every single, as they not only know their way around a hook but understand the importance of a solid chorus that falls on the right line between oversubtle and overbearing, memorable but not hitting-the-head-with-a-mallet so, as too much Top 40 pop does. Geniuses they are not, but there's a little too much of the ineffable magic fairy dust that's sprinkled over the most transcendent pop to claim that they're mere craftsmen. Hall has a bright but shallow but undeniable talent; let's call him a lightweight mini-genius and be done with it, agreed?
The brightly shining synthesizer hook of "Did It In a Minute," scored the boys another hit, a considerably smaller one than the two #1's, and it's one of those rock solid products of sheer pop craftsmanship where every song sounds like a potential single. The album sticks closer to the pop-soul than pop-rock side of the duo for the most, though Oates' "Friday Let Me Down," is a ringingly soaring slice of pure power-pop that wouldn't sound out of place on a Shoes or Knack album. Nearly every song has some sort of winning combo of hookcraft and melodic insinuation to emerge forth on the right side of a pleasure. They may not have made another album before or since quite as consistent (some swear by their '70s albums, but those are all too hit-and-miss in comparison), but for once they really delivered the goods with a record that's as entertaining as mainstream '80s pop gets. That's a recommendation, BTW. Not a super-strong recommendation, since I only gave it four not five stars. Let's face it, mainstream '80s pop by definition has an artistic glass ceiling.