Graded on a Curve: Kenny Loggins,
Keep the Fire

So I was dancing around the living room to the great Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose” when—imagine my shock and awe—Kenny himself appeared in a puff of smoke wearing a white robe and holding a glowing orb. I’m accustomed to seeing spots before my eyes, but Kenny Loggins? A classic symptom of soft rock poisoning. Anyway, Kenny spaketh thus: “Go ahead, stroke the glowing orb. You will be magically transported to Vahevala where you will learn the secrets of the universe and be granted your own personal Yeti. You will experience the sublime wonders of His Divine Kennyness. And never again will you find yourself on the highway to the danger zone.”

Well, how do you turn down a pitch like that? I placed my hand on the glowing orb, and was instantly rocketed to a fourth dimension of existence where Winnie the Pooh frolicked with Michael McDonald against a backdrop of flaming meteors and the sounds of “What a Fool Believes” emerged in a synesthetic parade of fabulous colors from the flaring horn of a Grammy Award. For a moment I thought I would explode. It reminded me of the time I chugged an entire bottle of vanilla extract as a kid, only this time I didn’t projectile vomit afterwards.

But I did projectile vomit after listening to Kenny’s 1979 LP Keep the Fire, which proves that even Yacht Rock Gods are susceptible to producing records that smell… off. The only good things to be said for it are its ironically hilarious cover and “This Is It,” which is no “I’m Alright” but is alrighter by far than such Kenny treacle as “Celebrate Me Home” and “Whenever I Call You “Friend.”

Loggins’ best songs are subversively perky for a congenital balladeer—in relaxed mode the results are too often insufferably smarmy. Amongst his soft rock contemporaries Kenny is Mr. Excitement, but the problem with Keep the Fire is that even the feisty ones don’t make the grade, and will be enjoyed only by stark raving Kenny fanatics with no sense of quality control. But then again, isn’t that the definition of a fanatic?

Despite the myriad Lovecraftian horrors (“House on Pooh Corner,” “Danny’s Song”) he’s loosed upon the world I’ve always had a soft spot for Kenny, if only because he’s the King of the Eighties Movie Soundtrack and seems so darned eager to please. But he doesn’t please on LP opener “Love Has Come of Age,” which opens on a big prog note before it begins pogoing and Kenny goes into rock mode. Trouble is its hard to tell whether Mr. Loggins is trying to rewrite “Frankenstein,” go Utopia, or write a “Footloose” for robots.

There’s no question he’s trying to go the “Footloose” route on boogie clunker “Mr. Night,” on which he gives us his best growl and generally bounces around in the hope that we’ll be inspired to do the same. But Mr. High Energy can’t pull it off, chiefly because the song lacks dance appeal. He comes a tad bit closer on the very Caribbean spicy “Junkanoo Holiday,” which is all exotic percussion and actually pretty high-octane funky. But I can’t escape the suspicion that Kenny’s trying a bit too hard—kind of like a boring guy in a Hawaiian shirt desperate to have fun on his Jamaican getaway. But like I said, Kenny is eager to please.

“Now and Then” has Kenny in breathless balladeer mode, but the results aren’t particularly memorable and too saccharine pretty by far. He shows off his falsetto, and goes actor’s workshop dramatic, but this one is a love song for Kenny lovers in love and that’s about it. “Who’s Right, Who’s Wrong” is another slow one, but despite the backing vocals of Michael Jackson and Richard “Mr. Mister” Page and the omnipresent saxophone of studio go-to horn Michael Brecker the song falters because, well, it simply doesn’t stick. It’s like a mental tape that erases itself after every listen, despite the glossy production and Kenny’s attempts to generate some excitement by the strength of sheer vocal pyrotechnics. The title track comes closer–the chorus ain’t half bad. Unfortunately, this fire doesn’t produce enough heat to warm your chilly ears, much less make you get up and go Kevin Bacon.

“Give It Half a Chance”—which Loggins co-wrote with Elvin Bishop—is another slow and pretty one, and Kenny’s vocal cords put on a nice show—his falsetto is one of the seven wonders of the world. Unfortunately the song itself is pedestrian, and all the Olympian vocal gymnastics in the world can’t change that. “Will at Last” suffers the same fate—I want to like it, I really do, but aside from the patented Loggins vox it has nothing to offer. Which leaves us with “This Is It,” a Loggins-McDonald composition that works on the strength of the vocal harmonies of the two Yacht Rock captains and a chorus that has gut punch. For once Loggins’ amazing vocal range is put to noble use in a song worthy of it.

Kenny Loggins may have done the right thing by Garfunkeling poor Jim Messina, but as songs like “This Is It,” “What a Fool Believes,” and “Footloose” demonstrate, he’s always been at his best working in collaboration. I firmly believe that had someone had the bright idea of consigning Loggins and McDonald to a storage locker for a year the world would have more great songs. The only great song I can think of Loggins wrote all by his lonesome is “I’m Alright”—indeed, it’s only halfway decent song he ever wrote by himself.

True, the guy collaborates more often than not, but as Keep the Fire demonstrates Loggins doesn’t need any old collaborators; he needs top-notch co-writers with the capacity to curb his uncanny ability to write pedestrian songs good only for giving him the opportunity to show off his vocal chops. Which is what you get on this LP. Pedestrian songs that take you nowhere near the danger zone. Keep the Fire tells us one thing: glowing orb or no glowing orb, you can’t start a fire with soggy matches.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
D+

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