by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
In spite of its title and its snow-globe-themed album cover, Book of Love’s Candy Carol isn’t technically a Christmas album per se (although the band had originally intended to release it just before the holidays, the album unfortunately getting delayed a few months due to remixing and coming out in January), but it was inspired in part by the melody and uplifting vibe inherent in most Christmas carols and consequently makes for fitting music to play during the winter season, even if the lyrics never explicitly reference Christmas.
The Philadelphia-bred synth-pop-influenced quartet – named after the Monotones’ doo-wop classic and consisting of Ted Ottaviano, Susan Ottaviano (not actually related to Ted, surprisingly enough), Jade Lee, and Lauren Roselli – never came anywhere close during its existence to scoring a Top 40 hit or becoming a household name, but they did have the honor of serving as opening act on two Depeche Mode tours and being one of many fabulous acts on the great Sire Records, one of the most beloved and alternative-friendly major labels of the ‘80s and ‘90s (serving as home to the Replacements, Madonna, Depeche Mode, Erasure, the Ramones, Echo and the Bunnymen, and the Pretenders, to name just a few), for whom they’d record four albums. Several of their songs have also been immortalized on the big-screen; most notably, the Steve Martin/John Candy comedy Planes, Trains, and Automobiles would utilize their song “Modigliani (Lost in Your Eyes),” while the cult classic American Psycho features their song “I Touch Roses.”
1991’s Candy Carol – which downplayed the band’s dance side in favor of a more self-consciously sugary sound influenced by late ‘60s pop – was the quartet’s third full-length, following a 1986 self-titled effort that yielded two massive club hits in “I Touch Roses” and the tubular-bell-laden “Boy” (the latter of which would unexpectedly later top the Billboard dance charts upon being re-released in 2001) and 1989’s Lullaby, which yielded the band’s only Hot 100 entry, the #90-peaking “Pretty Boys and Pretty Girls.”
Hints of “The Little Drummer Boy” crop up in Candy Carol’s ingenious opening intro, which is really just a brief snippet of the album’s title cut re-arranged as a march. The album’s first full-length track is the chill-inducing dreamy pop and four-part harmony of the optimistic anthem “Turn the World,” the intro of which playfully quotes from both Tommy James’ “Draggin’ the Line” and the Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” while the verses and chorus make the song reminiscent in spirit to Paul McCartney’s “Pipes of Peace”; like the latter song, you could conceivably call “Turn the World” naïve – or even occasionally nonsensical – but its joyful message and desire to unite people the world over in music is more than just charming: it’s heartwarming, and the melody is both too lovely and too catchy to ignore.
The early-Depeche Mode-like “Quiver” and the frenetic beats of “Butterfly” dial up the sugar rush of the disc before the mood cools back down a bit as Ted Ottaviano takes a rare lead vocal on “Sunny Day,” which fuses the band’s brand of bubbly dance-pop to a slight rock influence. (This is one of the few Book of Love cuts to prominently feature guitars.) Like “Turn the World,” “Sunny Day” may lyrically seem a bit too flower-power-like for some listeners but, again, the combination of the band’s relentlessly optimistic and sunny outlook and the wall-to-wall hooks of the cut make it hard to resist dancing along to. It’s not particularly reminiscent of your average Book of Love song, if only due to the slight rock influence and the presence of Ted on lead vocals, but the song got some added attention after director Jonathan Demme – who had cast Roselli in a small role in The Silence of the Lambs – heard an early version of the song and decided to use it in the Jodie Foster/Anthony Hopkins film.
The late-‘60s-pop influences of the disc are obvious on the next cut, a brief, forty-second acapella number called “Flower Parade” featuring Roselli singing through a list of various flower types; you can nearly imagine the cut working just as well as an interlude on a Mamas and the Papas album a la “John’s Music Box,” but it doesn’t stick out in a bad way at all and fits right in with the overall vibe of this disc, while the first-side closer, the instrumental “Wall Song,” has a “Carol of the Bells” feel to it that makes it seem equally fitting here.
The album’s second side is just a knockout from start to finish, with no filler whatsoever, and it gets off to a fun start with the propulsive pop of the nursery-rhyme-like “Alice Everyday.” “Counting the Rosaries” (unusually featuring Roselli on lead vocals, Susan Ottaviano typically providing the lead on most songs from the band) pushes the envelope a bit with its religious overtones – the track even brazenly incorporating a Sanctus (sung – in Latin, naturally – by Roselli’s brother Marc, a Jesuit priest) into the song’s coda – but the song’s playfulness and insistent dance beats prevent the track from getting too heavy, and the band does a nice job of trying to be bold and adventurous without actually crossing the lines of good taste, not an easy feat for a song of this nature.
The wistful “Miss Melancholy,” with its Erasure-meets-the-Beatles’-“Fool on the Hill” vibe, keeps the hooks coming, as does the more dance-oriented skittering psychedelia of “Orange Flip,” but the band saves perhaps the most charming cut for last with the album-closing title cut, a Christmas-carol-like anthem opening with a combination of church bells and sleigh bells ringing out behind the band before the track cleverly incorporates a programmed loop that will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s ever owned an early miniature Casio keyboard, immediately followed by the introduction of an acoustic guitar into the mix. You realize just how perfect the cover art of this album is when you listen to this cut, as there’s just something about the track that distinctly makes you picture snow starting to fall from the sky.
Sadly, Candy Carol didn’t make much of a splash on the charts, stopping at #174 on the Top 200, but it was still a minor victory for the band, who only had one other disc of theirs reach the Top 200 (the #156-peaking Lullaby.) Though the band would only release one more full-length together, 1993’s Lovebubble, before splitting up, after which Jade Lee would primarily concentrate on work as a graphic designer and Susan Ottaviano would go on to become a much in-demand food stylist and recipe developer for publications like Bon Appetit, Cooking Light, and Every Day with Rachel Ray, while Ted Ottaviano remained in the music industry, working with many dance artists and doing extensive remix work for the likes of David Byrne and Fleetwood Mac, the band never completely went away. Ted Ottaviano and Lauren Roselli would go on to form The Myrmidons, while Book of Love’s music managed to retain just enough of a cult following to cause Reprise to issue a best-of for the band in 2001, I Touch Roses: The Best of Book of Love, causing the band to get together for a brief reunion tour, while Collector’s Choice would re-issue the band’s full catalog in 2009, the band celebrating the milestone with a one-off reunion date. 2016 would mark the 30th anniversary of the release of the band’s debut, leading Rhino Records to issue a brand-new best-of package, MMXVI - Book of Love - The 30th Anniversary Collection, the full quartet reuniting once more for a one-off gig in New York City to help promote the package.