I am, of course, unqualified to do either, since I remain a faceless drone in a sea of humanity, lost among the hordes, with little taste and even less musical training: tin, perhaps even aluminum foil, ears.
However, I have a keyboard, and I’m willing to wield it.
I will also dance the paradox dance:
- I’ll bust Mr. Richie’s chops for the ballads he’s foisted upon us over the years. You know the ones: syrupy, saccharine, overwrought and undercooked, feckless, limp, bathetic, and broadcast multi-millions of times.
- Then I’ll turn around and laud a ballad he co-wrote and sang lead on as one of the greatest, if not the pinnacle, of his and/or his former band’s discographies.
- Afterwards, I’ll completely defenestrate my entire thesis by admitting that ‘Sweet Love’ and ‘Just To Be Close to You’ and ‘Easy’ and ‘Sail On’ were fine, even exemplary.
- In the end, though, I’ll face the jury, pull at the lapels of my best suit, slip on a well-rehearsed expression of concern mixed with horror and fellow feeling, and intone in a deeply serious voice: ‘“Three Times a Lady.” “Still.” “Hello.” “Truly.” “Endless Love.” “Stuck on You.” “Oh No.” “Penny Lover.” ‘Ballerina Girl.”
The defendant is guilty of rank sentimentality. Members of the jury, you must convict.
(You may be wondering why I’ve neglected to include ‘Say You Say Me’ in this fulmination.)
An Academy Award.
[? Well, I exist under the delusion that that means something, despite the ‘You Light Up My Life’’s and ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’’s still displaying the little guy on their respective mantels.]
Point 3: One reviewer, way back when , described the tune as ‘Beatlesque.’ I don’t know. Maybe on the level of ‘Hello Goodbye?’)
‘Zoom’ is not an unknown quantity.
Heck, it was issued as a single in the UK, where it topped out at Number 38.
That version, of course, was taken from Commodores Live (the domestic single from the double LP was the studio funk stomper ‘Too Hot Ta Trot.’)
(Do I love the inclusion of ‘Ta?’ Most definitely.)
‘Zoom,’ the album cut, remains pristine, untouched by the gross populism of the 45, resolutely unedited, leaving it to breathe in its luxuriant, full-bodied 7:06. Sometimes, you had to pay $8.98 ($9.98 if you’re struggling under the ‘Superstar’ pricing model) to get to the good stuff. Took me a while to figure that out. ‘Zoom’ was the gateway drug.
Side two of Commodores harbored ‘Brick House’ and ‘Easy:’
Big hits. Enormous.
I played the living crap out of that side (esp., natch, ‘BH’ and ‘Easy’). The other side? Not so much.
No singles, you see. Nothing good enough to play on the radio once every 90 minutes, so why listen? Even if something like ‘Squeeze the Fruit’ was a sizzling flambé of funk sauce, ‘Funny Feelings’ a slower but no less tasty grinder, and ‘Heaven Knows,’ a, well, hmmm, a half-decent (refrains), half-uh-oh-what-the-hell-is-this-treacly-ballad-crap-let’s-hope-he-never-tries-this-nonsense-again (verses) track, which, not to bury the lede or anything, he would. For many long and labored years afterward.
At first, you clench your shoulders and set your jaw to drill press. A stately drum riff. Are they really gonna slow the whole thing down even more? Kill any and all forward thrust the album has thus far created? Two bloops of electronica foreshadow… something. That something is a horn motif of enormous gentleness, empathy, regret. I still do Salieri here: ‘…a phrase of such delight…’
I could end things now. Everything that follows arises from the sound and feel of those horns.
Even Lionel, who specialized in, and would subsequently run roughshod over, the love song form, couldn’t bring ‘Zoom’ there. It was already out of his control. The opening movement set the profile: this was something of a requiem, a hymn.
It was, yes, about a woman, Ronald LaPread’s wife, Kathy. He played bass; she, tragically, had cancer that would soon take her life.
They worked the song together until they couldn’t, and gave it to Richie to complete.
He finished it in the same vein as it was conceived, and that made all the difference.
‘Zoom’ had soul.
The lead vocal stays in control, without flourish. Harmonies slide in and out; the bass, as it should, stays out in front. ‘Zoom,’ counterintuitively, moves like a lazy float down a winding river, sometimes languishing in a shallow as you glide over a breakdown, sometimes running across peaceful rapids, pulling you toward its conclusion rather than pushing you slowly ahead with manufactured emotion.
Which leads to the play out. At just under two minutes, it balances what comes before, and amplifies as well, with a quiet joy, although the sorrow lurks. Still (no, not ‘Still’), it’s hard not feel hopeful and content as it winds down, a grace note punctuating a mournful yet hopeful reverie.
So no, I didn’t do all the things I said I would up at the top.
I didn’t even bury Mr. Richie, who’s provided me with enough ‘not another one!’ material to drop a two-ton safe on, Looney Tunes-style.
Although if I did, he’d only resurrect himself and turn the whole experience into a piano ballad (‘Zombie Girl’ or ‘Slayed by You’).
‘Zoom’ is the finest moment in a career of fine moments the Commodores brought to this listener.
It encouraged me to pay attention to every inch of every LP I’d ever own going forward. I may be a foolish dreamer, but I don’t care:
I think I became a real appreciator of pop music because of ‘Zoom.’
One more thing, LR? What the hell was going on with ‘Night Train (Smooth Alligator)?’
This might be Album Cuts.
Over and out.
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