Friday, May 09, 2003

I need to come out of the closet. As a fan of easy listening.

This week, for example, I had a craving (which I sated) for some Gino Vannelli (see the hitlist). If you’re at least around 30, you remember Gino. He had a couple of big hits right around the turn of the 1980s, “I Just Wanna Stop” and “Living Inside Myself.” “Stop” is a creamy, soulful gem of a pop record, all lushly recorded vocals and relatively simple, ear-snatching melody. “Living” is an achy breaky ballad; you can nearly hear Vannelli’s heart cracking as he sings it. [His best single, however, wasn’t much of a hit, the title track from his ’85 synth-heavy album Black Cars.]

I like Paul Davis’s “Cool Night,” too. And smooth jazz vocalist Michael Franks. And friggin’ Muzak. And the Mantovani Orchestra. And akin to the Eagles, I can’t tell you why. [I even like that song, pretty much the only one of theirs I do – and it qualifies as a kind of easy listening, too.]

Generally, I loathe “light rock” – Celine, the excrable Phil Collins, most Mariah ballads, et cetera. But there was a station in central Indiana, WMRI 106.9 FM (Marion, IN), which during the ‘80s and most of the ‘90s was the 500-pound gorilla of “relaxing and easy” music in the Midwest. WMRI is a 50,000-watt clear channel FM station, which means you can hear it over most of the northeast quarter of the state. It’s no longer an easy listening station; they switched their format a couple years back to “lite rock,” meaning not only lots of the aforementioned artists, but lots of fairly generic adult contemporary. There’s no there there, anymore – WMRI has become a station like any other. But back in their glory days, they played smooth jazz before we knew what it is, and before it existed as a radio format (think Kenny G, Spyro Gyra, Keiko Matsui). They played Percy Faith’s 1958 #1 “Theme from A Summer Place.” They played Dinah Washington. They played stuff perilously close to Muzak. And it really was relaxing and easy, the stuff that gossamer sleep is made of. The announcers were utterly inobtrusive, only breaking in every 15 minutes in the evening and overnight hours. Their overnight jock, in fact, had the single most perfect radio voice I’ve ever heard: deep, basso, like a still (not stagnant) pond after a fresh rain; not only was he ace in general, he expertly matched his timeslot.

WMRI was the kind of radio station you really can’t find anymore (and if you can, please let me know - I’ll pay for cassette recordings). The closest thing I ever hear is the musty “nostalgia” format, heavy on the Dean Martin, Perry Como, and Andy Williams. This station played the fucking Pat Metheny Group! And Seal, too! It was, unbelievably, exciting radio, the alternate-universe version of freeform FM of the seventies, where you really didn’t know what would come next. And I mourn its loss.

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