Graded on a Curve:
Black Oak,
I’d Rather Be Sailing

The list of Yacht Rock admirals is long and illustrious. We know their names and we’ve all hoisted sail into the gently lulling breeze of their mellow. Christopher Cross. Pablo Cruise. Jimmy Buffett. Michael McDonald. Kenny Loggins. George Benson. Ambrosia. Player. Captain & Tennille. Toto. Little River Band. Black Oak.

Black Oak what now? Are we talking about Black Oak Arkansas, the acid-fried Southern rockers and rural commune dwellers from a land-locked state some 330 miles from the nearest body of salt water? The Black Oak Arkansas led by the charismatic hillbilly metaphysician Jim “Dandy” Mangrum, whose washboard abs, washboard playing, flowing blond locks, and inability to hold a tune made the band a highly successful seventies live act? Well sort of. By 1978’s I’d Rather Be Sailing Mangrum had dispensed with virtually every member of the original band and shortened its name to Black Oak in a futile effort to play down the group’s Southern rock roots. I’m betting the great state of Arkansas has never forgiven him.

But if tacking in a new direction is one thing, going Yacht Rock is a whole other bucket of chum. I doubt Mangrum’s ever seen a dolphin outside of a rerun of Flipper, and his knowledge of sailing is limited to an aluminum two-seater fishing boat with an outboard motor and a King Syrup can of worms as first mate. You might as well slap a captain’s cap on Ted Nugent and set him on a cabin cruiser.

And the results, as you might expect, are beyond dismal. I’d Rather Be Sailing is a mediocre collection of songs so generically bland they make Player sound like the Rolling Stones in their prime. Songs like “Daydreams” and “Wind in Our Sails” make I’d Rather Be Sailing one of the least seaworthy albums ever to founder within hailing distance of my ears, and are what you’d get if you lobotomized Christopher Cross with a harpoon then set him down at a piano.

Love him or poke fun at him (and I do both), Mangrum oozes personality–he’s the Bear State’s equivalent of David Lee Roth, a charismatic, one-of-a-kind, larger-than-life buckskin-clad showman whose cosmic musings (check out “Mutants of the Monster”) make him perhaps the most colorful character in the history of Southern rock. And on I’d Rather Be Sailing he doesn’t just swap his fringed buckskin jacket for a Hawaiian shirt—he literally homogenizes that series-of-wild-pitches voice of his in a doomed effort to sound like everybody else.

There isn’t a single worthwhile cut on I’d Rather Be Sailing—what you get instead are three-minute nautical disasters. Opener “I’ll Take Care of You” is perky and you can dance to it, right off the starboard side. Strings, backing vocalists—you name it and this baby has it, whether you want it or not. “You Keep Me Waiting” is a toothless “ rocker” that would make the guys in Ambrosia blanch. The sub-sub-par “Rock with Me” actually boasts a guitar with a bit of bite, but where’s Mangrum? Is he even in there? You get lots of group vocals, but not one of them sounds like Jim Dandy, who couldn’t have come to the song’s rescue anyway.

Mangrum’s front and center on “Made of Stone,” and there’s a nice guitar solo in there, but the song itself is recycled Grand Funk cut with the Little River Band. “You Can Count on Me” opens with a saxophone that brings Grover Washington Jr. to mind, and features Mangrum doing his best imitation of Tom Jones. But that’s nothing compared to the saccharine “God Bless the Children,” on which the dandy one has the decency to show off the inability to hit the vocal strike zone that has always made him so loveable. “Let’s put an end to this,” he sings, so why does he keep singing? And you’ve got to love the big crescendo, on which he hangs on to the final note until it screams bloody murder and he lets it go.

And (is it even possible?) ”Innocent Eyes” is even worse. Joined by a choir of (I’m assuming here) indentured servants, Mangrum—who once personified pure grits and gravy sexuality—sounds neutered, or like he’s joined a Southern Baptist choir that considers singing off-key a grim harbinger of the End Times. And the same goes for the nightmarish “Daydreams,” which the Jim Dandy of yore would have shot, skinned, and hung on a fence post to warn other shitty songs to stay off commune property. Closer “Wind in Our Sails” is the only explicit Yacht Rocker, as you can tell by title, flute and sense of dread that steals over you when you realize it bears a nausea-inducing resemblance to Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Southern Cross,” minus the annoyingly delicate vocal harmonies of course.

Jim Dandy found himself in dire straits come 1978, but he was never going to escape by sea. Good old boys from Arkansas have no place on yachts—they belong in hot rods beside Ruby Starr in a tube top swigging moonshine as they round dirt road hairpin curves at, say, fifty mph over the speed limit. Mangrum himself knew I’d Rather Be Sailing was a shipwreck—”I’d rather be doing anything but this album,” he was quoted as saying. And I’m not the first to note that dropping that “Arkansas” shorted the band’s acronym from BOA to BO. Which is as good an explanation as any for the stench.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
F

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