Led by enthusiastic guitarist/singer Richard Barone, this Hoboken, New Jersey pop band makes no effort to conceal its roots. Mixed among the original songs on Drums Along the Hudson (an expanded version of the Time and the River mini-album, itself a compilation of singles) is a breathy cover of T. Rex’s “Mambo Sun”; elsewhere, Barone spins out streamlined Byrds guitar licks and maintains a brisk pace throughout. Tuneful originals like “In the Congo” and “Video Eyes” may trade a certain amount of substance for easy appeal, but there’s no better musical equivalent of whipped cream anywhere.
The Bongos subsequently expanded from a trio with the fulltime addition of guitarist James Mastro. In an offbeat variation on the solo record concept, Barone and Mastro dropped down to North Carolina to record Nuts and Bolts in collaboration with Mitch Easter. Each Bongo takes a side to showcase his own writing and singing, while helping the other out as well. Barone’s results are bland and resemble unfinished band demos or outtakes, with dull sound matching uninspired material; Mastro takes a more idiosyncratic approach, using the opportunity to express some individuality and clearly delineate his contribution to the Bongos.
Recording for the first time as a quartet, the Bongos cut five new songs for Numbers With Wings, produced by Richard Gottehrer. “Barbarella” and the title track are prime, filled with swell harmonies, driving acoustic guitars and subtle structural tricks; the rest is adequate but dispensable.
Produced by John Jansen (Lou Reed, Television), Beat Hotel is the Bongos’ most rocking record, a sparkling explosion of guitar pop. “Space Jungle” has a nagging hook and a full-blown arrangement; “Apache Dancing” is similarly ambitious in a different vein; “Come Back to Me” and “A Story (Written in the Sky)” hark back to the band’s simpler days; “Totem Pole” sounds a bit like the dB’s except for the overblown big-band finale. Given the best audio treatment of their career, the Bongos prove their mettle, simultaneously exposing their main inadequacy: inconsistent songwriting. (One CD combines Beat Hotel and Numbers With Wings.)
Barone chronicled the recording of the band’s unreleased Phantom Train for the Island label in his 2007 autobiography, Frontman. The recordings from 1985 and 1986 were finally released in 2013 on the revitalized JEM label. As it turns out, the lost album could have been a real comeback after the stumble of the Bongos’ RCA stint. The band really nails the tough trick of rocking out to ambitious and mannered melodies. E.T. Thorngren produced the record with the deftness of a man who’s fluent in pop, reggae and disco — fulfilling his role as a potential hitmaker for a band that didn’t know it was actually recording demos for Barone’s solo career.
Barone’s solo debut was made onstage at New York’s Bottom Line, trading the Bongos’ big pop for airy chamber music, leading a scaled-down attack flanked by a cellist, acoustic guitarist and a percussionist-pianist-vibraphonist. Cool Blue Halo‘s gentler approach shows off his romanticism to good effect, especially on such choice covers as the Beatles’ “Cry Baby Cry” and Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” and Bongos classics (“The Bulrushes” and “Numbers With Wings”). A perfect three a.m. record, though it sounds a tad precious in broad daylight.
In contrast, Primal Dream is a full-blown studio job that applies overly smooth production (half by Richard Gottehrer, half by Don Dixon) to Barone’s subtle song craft. Though it’s consistently tasteful and tuneful, Primal Dream lacks the rocking playfulness of the Bongos’ best work, veering dangerously close to MOR blandness. Still, taken in small enough doses, the pleasures of such tunes as “River to River” and “Where the Truth Lies” (not to mention a gracefully unslick cover of Lou Reed’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror”) are undeniable.