by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Hardly anyone my age knows who they are, but one of my favorite bands growing up was a California pop/rock band from the ‘70s and ‘80s called Pablo Cruise, a band I first discovered in my pre-teens simply by spotting a few of their albums in the budget bins at the local Camelot Music and giving the discs a shot for no other reason than that they were on the A&M label (still arguably the greatest artist-run imprint of all-time) and their album covers looked great; one listen to Worlds Away, and I was hooked for life. In their heyday, the band's music was go-to soundtrack fodder for sports programs like Wide World of Sports and Sports Spectacular and surfing documentaries, and the band racked up a respectable five Top Forty hits in their eight-year run of albums before disbanding. (Lead singer Dave Jenkins would later serve as the frontman for country band Southern Pacific, while keyboardist/songwriter Cory Lerios would land a lucrative gig writing television scores and theme songs for shows like Baywatch and Days of Our Lives and latter-day bassist John Pierce would go on to be one of the most in-demand session bassists in the industry, playing with everyone from Paul Westerberg to New Radicals, and serve as the full-time bassist in Huey Lewis and the News.) While the band’s breezy brand of pop/rock often was frequently smooth and stylish enough to serve as a rather fitting soundtrack for a sailing excursion or an island getaway and could conceivably be filed under the genre that has affectionately been dubbed “yacht rock” for that reason, they’re still noticeably a bit more hipper-sounding and more rock-influenced than your average soft-rock band, and Jenkins’ impressive guitar solos really help to make the band stand out among their peers. Most importantly of all, Jenkins and Lerios were simply incredibly gifted songwriters that knew how to write sophisticated pop singles with hooks that almost always landed on first impact.
Pablo Cruise (1975, A&M)
Not everything here works – co-vocalist/bassist Bud Cockrell’s own songs here just don’t fit in with the rest of the album at all (especially “Rock’n’Roller,” which sounds like it’s by another band entirely) and the twelve-and-a-half-minute “Ocean Breeze” goes on for a bit too long – but the band shows some real promise here, particularly on the David Jenkins-sung tracks “What Does It Take,” “Denny,” “In My Own Quiet Way,” and especially the vaguely humorous “Not Tonight,” the most fun and immediately catchy song here.
Lifeline (1976, A&M)
Lifeline doesn’t have anything quite as irresistible as “Not Tonight” from the last album, but there are still plenty of fairly good songs here, and this is easily a more consistent outing than their debut. Side One is especially strong, boasting wall-to-wall hooky cuts like “Crystal,” “Don’t Believe It,” “(I Think It’s) Finally Over,” and, best of all, the title cut, the chorus of which nearly sounds like it could have come from a Spinners song. (Adding to the fun of the latter two songs is the presence of ‘70s singer-songwriter and session great Andrew Gold.) The album nearly derails due to a few dull songs that kick off Side Two, but the album manages to get back on track and close on a positive note with the fine Cockrell tune “Who Knows” and the fun, Jimmy Buffett-like “Good Ship Pablo Cruise.”
A Place in the Sun (1977, A&M)
The band really started to find its identity on their third outing, their final album with co-vocalist/bassist Bud Cockrell, and the disc (which eventually went platinum) deservedly yielded their first Top 40 hit, the soulful Top Ten smash “Whatcha Gonna Do?,” on which Jenkins and Cockrell trade vocals and Jenkins really steals the show with his fretboard work during the instrumental break. The album’s first side is fairly hit or miss (the title cut is quite good, while “Raging Fire” is pretty cringe-inducing), but the album’s second side is awfully great, with “Can’t You Hear the Music” seguing directly into the fun piano-pop of “Never Had a Love,” and the absolutely gorgeous acoustic ballad “Atlanta June” (one of the band’s prettiest melodies) seguing directly into the impressive instrumental jam “El Verano.”
Worlds Away (1978, A&M)
The band’s fourth album, but their first without Cockrell, went platinum and made it all the way to #6 on the charts, and for good reason: it’s their best album yet and the one that perhaps best defines the group’s distinctive sound. There are two Top 40 hits here, the gently-chugging, sunny AM radio classic “Love Will Find a Way” (which became the group’s second Top Ten hit and their most immediately recognizable tune) and the vaguely disco-tinged “Don’t Want to Live without It.” The band nearly even scored a third Top 40 hit from the album in their fun and vibrant remake of the Peter Allen song “I Go to Rio,” which stopped at #46. (Even if you’re not familiar with the song, you may recognize its distinctive chords from Coldplay’s “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall.”) There’s no shortage of other fine cuts here: the synthesizer-driven propulsive title cut could have been a hit single in its own right and remains a huge favorite of their fans, while “Sailing to Paradise” is one of the band’s most relaxing numbers.
Part of the Game (1979, A&M)
It’s hard not to feel a little disappointed by the band’s last outing of the Seventies (especially when the album cover itself is so memorable): there are only eight songs here, there’s nothing here that’s quite as instantly unforgettable as “Love Will Find a Way,” and the band delves just a little bit too often here into disco territory. However, it’s not bad, either. The Top 40 hit “I Want You Tonight” is disco-tinged, but it’s still much better than your average disco song and is a fairly solid single. The band fares even better when it sticks to more rock-oriented territory, and “Tell Me That You Love Me,” “How Many Tears?,” and the incredibly catchy title cut are all standouts.
Reflector (1981, A&M)
The group’s first Eighties album finds them with a new producer, the legendary Tom Dowd, and a new lineup as well: Bruce Day is gone, and the band is now joined by bassist John Pierce, who co-writes five songs, and second guitarist Angelo Rossi. The sound of the band is noticeably a bit different this time, but the new lineup sounds great, and the set of songs is their best and catchiest since Worlds Away. The slick, smooth adult-contemporary pop of “Slip Away,” “That’s When,” and “One More Night” find the band taking on a slight R&B flavor, but they pull it off quite nicely, while the more pop-oriented ballad “Don’t Let the Magic Disappear” is just as excellent. Even better is the Top 40 hit, “Cool Love,” a gorgeous power ballad built around a devastatingly pretty recurring piano motif from Lerios; the track slowly keeps building intensity until Jenkins slices right through with a memorable and passionate guitar solo. The most fun track of all, though, has to be “Jenny,” which was shockingly not a single but might very well be the catchiest song in the band’s entire catalog! “Jenny” is pure pop perfection, a fun rocker that unexpectedly features a brief detour into reggae before Jenkins tears into another jaw-dropping guitar solo. The album does peter out a bit towards its end, but it’s a minor flaw in what otherwise is an incredibly underrated album, one of the best soft-rock records of the early ‘80s.
Out of Our Hands (1983, A&M)
This turned out to be the band’s final album before they broke up, but this doesn’t at all sound like the work of a band that’s run out of steam. They sound rather refreshed here, actually (perhaps, in part, the product of another lineup change, Rossi being replaced by Stef Burns, while original drummer Steve Price has left and is replaced by David Perper) and are trying all kinds of new things out to interesting and generally successful results. “Talk to Me Right” is, like Billy Joel’s then-recent “Tell Her About It,” a bit of a throwback to early Motown, while the album’s catchiest song, the synth-driven “Givin’ It Back” (inexplicably not released as a single and a real missed opportunity at a hit) ventures into new-wave territory. The title cut finds the band co-writing with the then-red-hot Huey Lewis (who shared a manager, Bob Brown, with the band), while the reggae-inflected “Treat Her Right” would have fit right onto place onto one of Bonnie Raitt’s comeback albums of the ‘90s. The band doesn’t veer entirely from their usual formula, and the excellent opener “Will You Won’t You” hearkens back somewhat to the title cut from Part of the Game, albeit with stronger hooks. The album unfortunately sold terribly, but there are definitely several songs on here that should have been hits, and the disc is strong and intriguing enough to make you wonder what the next disc might have sounded like, had there been one.