AOR is a genre that is explored often at Schlockmania but it’s usually done in the more arena-rocking context of this style (i.e. stuff along the lines of Styx, Journey, Foreigner, etc.). However, there is another side to AOR that downplays the bombast in favor of smooth melodicism defined by light undertones of jazz and soul. It’s usually referred to in the U.S. as “soft rock” or “adult contemporary,” as it is usually aimed at the adult listener and seeks to tranquilize rather than energize its listeners.
Like any subgenre of pop music, the lite-F.M. side of AOR music breeds a small cult of obsessive fans — and Americana: Rock Your Soul is a good way to get an example of what mellow AOR cultists are into. This compilation was assembled by two friends/collectors, Zafar Chowdhry and Mark Taylor, who have spent decades collecting this style of music. Each man selected eight top rarities from his respective personal stash to create this set and, despite its singular subgenre focus, it offers a varied set of approaches to easy listening.
Those who fear hearing a bunch of Top-40 schmaltz need not worry: the focus here is obscure labels and a few personal-label pressings rather than music from familar artists. Indeed, Americana: Rock Your Soul is a collection that is governed by style rather than stars: the consistent elements here are a high level of musicianship, slick production values and accessible pop melodies (always with a strong chorus) supported by plush instrumentation.
However, Chowdhry and Taylor keep the playlist fresh by choosing material that adds some interesting element to offset the expected sleek-sounds formula. For instance, “Just For You” by the amusingly named 1619 Bad Ass Band offsets its yearning string orchestrations and gentle electric piano with a tight funk-band rhythm section and “Slow Dancer” by Life Force has vaguely Spanish horns that make it sound like War or Santana trying to do a A.M. radio-friendly ballad.
Another distinctive element here is the inclusion of several cuts by Hawaiian musicians, the kind of obscure but fantastic stuff that never crossed over to American mainland. Highlights include Society Of Seven’s “Between Hello And Goodbye,” a string-sweetened soul ballad with a to-die-for “la la la” hook supporting its chorus, and Tender Leaf’s “Coast To Coast,” an unexpectedly psychedelic track that carries its acoustic-driven jazz stylings off into a blissfully spaced-out dimension. However, the killer in the Hawaiian track department has to be Lil’ Albert’s “My Girl Friday,” a gem that adds gorgeous string and horn arrangements to a gently swinging melody that builds to a gloriously massive (yet deeply lounge-y) chorus.
The aforementioned highlights are just a small selection of the good stuff here: other faves include Midnight Flyer’s “I Just Want To Love You,” a killer slab of lite-disco, and a surprisingly slinky take on Earth Wind & Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love” by Jaye P. Morgan (of The Gong Show fame!). The closest this collection comes to breaking its own stride is Ian Willson’s “Four In The Morning,” a track that is oddly minimalist and electro in this company, but its hypnotic chorus and slick style pull it through. The package is rounded out by a quality liner notes booklet is also included that explains the criteria behind the choices and also tells some interesting stories about the musicians (the tale about Tender Leaf is the most intriguing).
In short, Americana: Rock Your Soul provides a great way to satisfy one’s mellow melodic sweet-tooth. You might not feel comfortable listening to it in the company of your hipper, edgier friends but it provides the kind of sweet satisfaction that only lite AOR can bring.