Graded on a Curve:
Pablo Cruise,
Twentieth Century Masters: Millennium Collection: The Best
of Pablo Cruise

Frank Sinatra once called rock ‘n’ roll “the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has been my displeasure to hear.” He was, I’m reasonably certain, referring to Pablo Cruise, the “Sex Pistols of Yacht Rock.” I actually own a Pablo Cruise t-shirt, bought it because I wanted people to think I’m vicious and depraved. And it works. Pedestrians tend to cross the street to avoid me. They’re afraid I may bite. Or scarier yet, force them to listen to “Love Will Find a Way.”

For the longest time I assumed Pablo Cruise took their name from an obscure Mexican revolutionary leader. This is not the case. Others assumed there was a guy named Pablo Cruise in the band. This is also not the case. When asked “Who’s Pablo Cruise?” the quartet said simply, “He’s the guy in the middle.” I like a band with a sense of humor and I like Pablo Cruise (in a very small measure) and I am not ashamed.

I bought the t-shirt as a joke but I wear it with pride because despite their soft rock proclivities Pablo Cruise had soul. They did not have much soul, mind you, but they did their best. They also did their best to produce an “exciting sound.” As a result they are a surprisingly interesting Yacht Rock band. They were always attempting to transcend the mellow, to rise above the smooth. It was a quixotic endeavor, to be sure, and they failed for more than they succeeded. But I credit them for trying.

Robert Christgau of Village Voice fame wrote of Pablo Cruise’s 1975 breakthrough album Lifeline, “You can take the Doobie Brothers out of the country, but you can’t turn them into Three Dog Night.” I haven’t the slightest idea what this means, but I’m pretty sure it’s an insult. Insulting Pablo Cruise is a popular pastime. Everybody I know does it because everybody I know hates Pablo Cruise with a passion. I would call Pablo Cruise “the whipping boys of the world” but every single band or artist to haunt the musical marinas of our fair land during the seventies could lay claim to the honor. God help Christopher Cross, but that bastard put out a hellish good debut LP.

But if Pablo Cruise get no respect, that’s not to say they don’t deserve a smallish modicum of the commodity. When I hear one of their “hits,” all of which can be found on 2001’s Twentieth Century Masters: Millennium Collection: The Best of Pablo Cruise, on the car radio, I don’t switch the station. I crank up the volume. Partly, I’ll admit, because their songs and what the band represents amuse me, but also because they have something to offer. Defining what that something is can be difficult. But I think it goes back to what I said earlier. Pablo Cruise tried their damndest to be something other than bland. They were quintessential middle-of-the-roaders but they aspired to more. And occasionally, by God, in their quintessentially middle-of-the-road way, they succeeded.

They were also surprisingly eclectic. The Pablo Cruise sound was a melting pot of faux soul, power pop, standard issue Yacht Rock, funk, fusion, Latin music, and New Wave even. On the much-derided-by-the-music-hipsterati soft rock radio staple “Love Will Find a Way” the “Crooz” start things off with a cool guitar riff, then in comes David Jenkins like a low-rent Boz Scaggs. Robert Christgau wrote “Hear David Jenkins sing ‘once you get past the pain’ fifty times in a day and the pain will be permanent,” but he’s being too hard on the guy. And the song itself, while hardly earth-shattering, is a frothy piece of low-aspirations songcraft.

The same can be said for “Whatcha Gonna Do,” on which the band raise the temperature a few degrees and Jenkins aims at the blue-eyed soulful with more gusto than people give him credit for. The song has a (dare I say it) funky beat, the vocal harmonies are silky fine, and there’s even a muscular guitar solo. And there’s no denying the song sticks in your head, to the extent that you’ll have to listen to “Iron Man” a few times to drive it out. Of course you’ll then have to listen to something to get “Iron Man” out of your head. And you can see where I’m going with this. Things could get ugly.

The very sunny “A Place in the Sun” (perfect Yacht Rock song title!) opens with some blindingly bright synthesizer gratis Cory Lerios, Jenkins plays some sharp-edged guitar (including an extended solo), and bassist Bud Cockrell pitches in with some big pipes. No laid back here. This is play-that-funky-music-white-boy stuff, and while the funk is hardly world class (they’re from San Francisco, what do you expect?) it’s more than ersatz okay.

And if anything “Don’t Want to Live Without It” is even funkier—it has this big disco dance beat and an even bigger bass line and Jenkins’ vocals are powerful indeed. You get lots of vocal harmonies too, and yet another Jenkins guitar solo. The guy’s no Hendrix but he’s as close as the harbor rat pack ever came to a Hendrix, and his penchant for cutting loose definitely distinguished Pablo Cruise from their more placid Yacht Rock contemporaries.

The vaguely tropical “Island Woman” is archetypal Yacht Rock—isn’t the whole point of owning a pleasure cruiser finding yourself an exotic woman who will make your life a tropical paradise? Except that on this one Jenkins finds himself somewhere betwixt heaven and hell because this particular island woman is a handful. I love the lyrics—Bernie Taupin-worthy lines like “Every night she would come to me/But her demands brought disharmony/I said, “You can’t bring your drums to bed/Your rhythm method’s gonna leave me dead” abound, and that “churlish” in “It would be churlish of me to complain/But caviar every night is insane” demonstrates the band owned both a thesaurus and a sense of humor.

But South of the Border speaking “Island Woman” doesn’t stand a chance next to “I Go to Rio,” which bears a more than passing resemblance to Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana.” You get the same tropical dance beat perfect for doing the “samba or la bamba,” although the latter is a Mexican dance and I’m not it’s even sure it’s legal in Brazil. “I Go to Rio” is, of course, a cover of the flamboyant Peter Allen’s campy signature song, and Pablo Cruise have fun with it. It features a long instrumental break complete with handclaps, a whistle, and lots of hooting and hollering, and it opens with a gag—a phone rings, producer Bill Schnee picks up, and someone who sounds like they’re gargling Caipirinha says, “Hello, Bill. This is Pablo… I won’t be able to make it today because I’m at the bottom of the pool.” Which finally answers the question “Who’s Pablo Cruise?” He’s the member of the band who pulled a Brian Jones.

The title of the largely instrumental (you gets some guttural nonsense by Jenkins here and there) “Zero to Sixty in Five” makes you think you’re about to do some cigarette boat racing, and you are, but only after you’ve been “treated” to some show-offy piano complete with annoying frills by Lerios. After that you get the pleasure craft set’s idea of kickin’ out the jams, motherfucker, and it isn’t pretty. The song has zip, and Jenkins does some bona fide jams-kicking on guitar, but there’s no escaping the vaguely disco-fied and eminently cheesy strings and horn arrangement. Not cool, boys. Not cool. “Atlanta June” is a really laid-back sorta pop soul number on which Jenkins comes on like Marvin Gaye only to trip on his own lily-white tonsils. The melody is more than serviceable, and the keyboard work is nice, but what you end up with sounds like Little Feat if Little Feat had been wimps.

“I Want You Tonight” is a generic soft rocker that the boys undoubtedly considered a hard rocker. When Jenkins sings “I feel like getting crazy” you can tell he thinks he is, but his idea of crazy is wearing a more than ordinarily garish Hawaiian shirt. Or maybe no shirt at all! The backing vocals, as always, are oily slick, but when it comes to oily slick there’s no beating the impossibly earnest “Cool Love.” Jenkins pours so much ersatz passion into his vocals you’ll want to gag, and the piano follows suit, but the chorus, which has the guys singing “It’s a cool kind of love” is wine cooler chill, and Jenkins guitar solo is something to hear.

“Will You, Won’t You” is interesting, opens with some nice Byrdsy guitar interplay, then you get some tacky lyrics (“you take me to the point of no return,” gak) followed by some muscular vocalizing and, surprise of surprises, a treasure of a power pop chorus that never fails to brighten my day. This is Nuevo Wavo served up dockside by journeymen I didn’t think had it in them.

Closer “Ocean Breeze” is a flashy jazz piano showcase that quickly degenerates into pure hokum. It’s bad, and things get badder yet when the strings come in. After that things slow down and speed up and the guitar and drums come in and fall out again and it’s really maddening, and just when you think things can’t possibly get worse Jenkins appears from a cloud of sulphur like a lounge singer from hell and delivers the most cloyingly romantic vocal performance this side of Morris Albert’s “Feelings.” You want to punch the guy, you really do. This is truly the dark underbelly of Yacht Rock, stinks like dead fish in an oil slick. And its inclusion at the end is almost enough to make you think that the people who put the compilation together wanted to leave you hating the band.

There are pleasures to be found on this best-of. Not undeniable pleasures, that would be pushing it, but if you’re not above doing some slumming at the “wilder” end of the yacht dock and aren’t too proud to love schlock you could do much, much worse. If I was to be cruel I’d say they aspired to be Toto and failed. If I was to be kind I’d say they aspired to rise above their station and succeeded. I choose, and this isn’t the norm for me, to be kind. I have a soft spot for these guys. To paraphrase Neil Young, they tried to do their best but they could not. But theirs was a passionate mediocrity, and passion should always count for something in this world.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C

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