If you're like most people and spend much of your car-riding time pushing buttons until the "right" song shows up on the radio, you're unable to avoid hearing some of the same songs over and over again.
Recently, three of those same songs have been Michael Johnson's "Bluer Than Blue," Chris Rea's "Fool (If You Think It's Over)," and "My Angel Baby" by Toby Beau. All are slickly produced and eminently hummable. All have commercial hooks strong enough to grab even the most skeptical listener. And all are faceless.
It might sound odd to call a song faceless, but personality has always been an integral part of popular music. Today's trend, though, seems to be towards sound rather than emotion.
A well-produced, mass-appeal record is far more desirable to radio programmers and casual listeners than an unrefined talent who doesn't sound "safe." So, instead of Graham Parker, Talking Heads, and Elvis Costello, we get Michael Johnson, Chris Rea and Toby Beau.
Of the three, Michael Johnson is the closest thing to a presence. His "Bluer Than Blue" is sentimental (which can pass for moving nowadays) and his album, "The Michael Johnson Album" (EMI America, SW 17002), is a reasonable attempt at style. Unfortunately, Johnson sounds like a lot of other singers. The result is a pretty, but ultimately unconvincing effort.
Johnson doesn't fare all that badly interpreting other people's compositions (only one of the tunes on "The Michael Johnson Album" is his own). His hit, written by Randy Goodrum, and Lerner and Loewe's classic "Almost Like Being In Love," are especially pleasing.
Generally, though, Johnson fails to project. Vocally, he's fine, but the listener doesn't get any idea of what the performer is all about. Chalk it up to the superclean production of Steve Gibson and Brent Maher, or blame it on Johnson's own ultra-smooth singing. The music on "The Michael Johnson Album" is more manufactured than individually molded.
Chris Rea's "Fool (If You Think It's Over)" starts off as a near-parody of formula music. What sounds like an electric rhythm box (the kind used by solo pianists in tacky bars) opens the song and then Rea's voice cha-chas into the foreground. Again, we have a catchy tune, but nothing to hold once it's caught.
Rea's album, "Whatever Happened to Benny Santini" (United Artists, UA-LA 879 H) never escapes the programmed sound of "Fool . . ." Rea sounds a bit like Dave Mason, a bit like Jackson Browne, and even a dash like the Eagles, but he never establishes his own identity.
There's nothing offensive on the album and the title cut shows Rea has promise. But just when you're thinking "here comes the chorus," here comes the chorus.
Any music so skillfully calculated to attract popularity can't help being successful, but it loses out on feeling.Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, and others usually manage to combine commercial viability with artistic integrity, so it can be done. So far, Chris Rea has only mastered the commercial part.
Toby Beau is so unassuming that more than one disc jockey has referred to them as "him". Toby Beau is a quintet (Danney McKenna, Rob Young, Balde Silva, Steve Zipper, and Ron Rose) whose "My Angel Baby" has a melody strongly reminiscent of the old Casinos hit "Then You Can Tell Her Goodbye."
"My Angel Baby" offers no clues that the rest of Toby Beau's self-titled album (RCA, AFL-1-2771) has a light country flavor with song titles like "Buckaroo." "Moonshine" and "Broken Down Cowboy."
Their hillbilly lilt owes a lot to Ron Rose's banjo, but its feel is a bit off-center, possibly because though the band is from Texas, the album was recorded and mixed in England.
The band's swooning hit is about the heaviest tune on the record. Most of the other compositions are so wispy they leave no impression, and the group gives you nothing else tangible to grab. Their playing is adequate and they seem to know the right pop moves, but Toby Beau might as well be traveling salesmen for all the individuality they command as musicians. The album tracks seem to blend into each other and one hour after listening to "Toby Beau," it's hard to remember any one tune, with the possible exception of the hit.
Neither Michael Johnson, Chris Rea, nor Toby Beau are bad acts in a technical sense. They all offer easily digested work without any after-effects, and there is definitly a market for their type of harmless expression.
But you can't help thinking that popular music should be more than harmless. There is some recent evidence that purer forms of rock 'n' roll are coming back, but albums like these three show a move away from the menace and naked sentiments that make a lot of pop music interesting (if not always saleable). It's a bit disheartening when this blander strain is so readily accepted by consumers.
The worst of it is that when you strip away the surface gloss of the music of Michael Johnson, Chris Rea, and Toby Beau - and look for the real people underneath - there's no one to be seen.