Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Huey Lewis and the News Album

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Huey Lewis and the News (1980, Chrysalis)

C  

Huey and his band already sound quite good on this self-titled debut outing (and their distinctive blend of harmonies in already in place and sounds as gorgeous as ever), and it’s clear that the band has promise. Unfortunately, the album is almost entirely self-penned (save for one cover), and Huey and his bandmates have yet here to quite master the art of writing a great pop song, so there aren’t a whole lot of songs here that sink in after just one or two listens, and a few of the songs are slightly cheesy, namely “Hearts” and “Now Here’s You,” the latter of which has a melody and a recurring saxophone fill that will almost certainly make some listeners think of The Simpsons’ Kirk Van Houten’s notorious “Can I Borrow a Feeling?” Still, there are a fair number of decent songs here that hint at the band’s promise to come, like “Don’t Make Me Do It,” “Stop Trying,” and “Don’t Ever Tell Me That You Love Me,” and there are two even stronger songs that would deservedly remain in the band’s stage repertoire for years to come: the soulful shuffle of “Trouble in Paradise” and the clever, driving rocker “Some of My Lies Are True (Sooner or Later).”  It’s not nearly as essential a pick-up as any of their other Eighties albums, but it has its minor gems and its distinctly embryonic nature makes it an awfully fascinating listen if you’re picking this up for the first time and are already familiar with the polished pop-craft of Picture This, Sports, and Fore!

Picture This (1982, Chrysalis)

A +

It’s not nearly as famous an album as the disc that would follow it, the multi-million-selling Sports, and it didn’t yield as many chart hits, but Picture This might actually be a better album when judged purely on a song-by-song basis. Simply put, every last song here is likely to get stuck in your brain after just one listen, and the disc packs more hooks into its ten songs than a lot of other artists manage over their entire careers. The band only contributes a few originals here, but they’ve clearly improved as songwriters since the last disc, and the driving “Workin’ for a Livin’,” the album-opening rush of the gorgeous “Change of Heart,” the ska-tinged “Tell Me a Little Lie,” the lovely ballad “Is It Me,” and the sunny pop of “Whatever Happened to True Love” are all fantastic. The band also picks some really strong cover material, and their renditions of the obscure, “Mutt” Lange-penned “Do You Believe in Love” (originally recorded by the now-forgotten Supercharge), the Hollywood Flames’ doo-wop classic “Buzz-Buzz-Buzz,” Thin Lizzy frontman Phil Lynott’s “Giving It All up for Love,” and former Wet Willie member Mike Duke’s horn-heavy soul ballad “Hope You Love Me Like You Say You Do” (which culminates in a fun, handclap-laden singalong) are all show-stoppers. “Do You Believe in Love” and “Hope You Love Me Like You Say You Do” would deservedly both land the band in the Top 40 for the first time, the former song even giving the band their first of many Top Ten hits to come. Sports is the one you’ll likely want to pick up first, if only because it’s got more hits, but Picture This is an absolute must-own for any Huey Lewis fan.

Sports (1983, Chrysalis)

A +

It tapers off slightly in its back half, but there’s a reason this album was a commercial blockbuster: it’s absolutely loaded with some of the biggest radio hits of the era. The album kicks off with the anthemic “The Heart of Rock & Roll,” which boasts a really fun, brass-heavy extended instrumental jam after its final chorus. (Huey and the boys were always really underrated as instrumentalists, and some of this album’s best moments come from hearing them simply play off of each other.) From there, you’ve got the R&B-infused rock of “Heart & Soul” (previously recorded by the bands Exile and The Bus Boys and penned by the team of Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn, who had penned Toni Basil’s “Mickey”), featuring a killer solo from Chris Hayes that ranks as one of the few guitar solos of the ‘80s most radio listeners could probably hum note-for-note, and the quirky grooves of “I Want a New Drug,” which repeatedly shows off the band’s instrumental chops to great effect. As if that weren’t enough, the second side’s got two more Top 40 hits in “Walking on a Thin Line” and the delicious and infectious soulful pop of the doo-wop-laced “If This Is It,” which still sounds great on the radio to this day. There are few cuts here that weren’t singles, but even the album cuts are great, especially “Finally Found a Home” and the pure blues of“Bad Is Bad,” a great showcase for Huey’s always-underrated harmonica playing and a cut which Huey had actually written back in the late ‘70s and Dave Edmunds had already recorded (with Huey himself on harmonica) on his album Repeat when Necessary.

Fore! (1986, Chrysalis)

A  

Strangely, while this album yielded just as many major radio hits as Sports, it’s not nearly as well-remembered today and its singles aren’t heard nearly as often on the radio today as those from the previous album. It’s true that this isn’t quite as strong an album as Sports was, but it’s still very fun and first-rate stuff, so why this album gets so overlooked today is a bit of a head-scratcher. There are two Number One hits included here: the sunny, chiming pop of “Stuck with You,” which is as perfect and melodic a pop song as the band has ever written, and the wildly underrated, Bruce Hornsby-written, televangelist-bashing “Jacob’s Ladder,” which features Pablo Cruise lead singer David Jenkins on backing vocals. There are also three other Top Ten hits here: the appealing, soulful “Doing It All for My Baby” (penned by Wet Willie’s Mike Duke, who had previously written “Hope You Love Me Like You Say You Do” for the band), the stadium rock of “I Know What I Like,” and the horn-heavy party number “Hip to Be Square,” the latter two of which – fun trivia alert – feature NFL greats Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, and Dwight Clark on backing vocals. (No fooling!) The quality of the surrounding album cuts is just as good as that on Picture This or Sports, too, the album being rounded out by fine tracks like the doo-wop infused “Whole Lotta Love” and the pure acapella of “Naturally,” the Kenny Loggins-co-written “Forest for the Trees,” and “I Never Walk Alone” (penned by Reed Nielsen, formerly of the early-‘80s one-hit-wonder duo Nielsen/Pearson of “If You Should Sail” fame).

Small World (1988, Chrysalis)

C  

As red-hot as Huey Lewis and the News had been for the previous five years, it’s surprising in hindsight that this album sold as disappointingly as it did, eventually going platinum, but becoming their first album since Picture This to miss the Top Ten entirely (whereas Sports and Fore! had both reached Number One) and yield only one Top Ten hit single. Mind you, this album was never going to sell as many copies as either of its two predecessors – there aren’t nearly as many obvious singles here – but it’s not exactly bad, either (although “Walking with the Kid” by itself is pretty terrible), and the album has got a harsher reputation than it deserves. The biggest hit here was the excellent, reggae-tinged “Perfect World” (penned by Huey’s former Clover bandmate Alex Call, who had written the big hits “867-5309/Jenny” and “Little Too Late” for Tommy Tutone and Pat Benatar, respectively), which remains one of the band’s most underrated singles. The only other Top 40 hit here, the album’s title cut (which is split into two parts that bookend the album’s first side), isn’t quite as hooky, but it’s still very pleasant, and best of all, it features jazz legend Stan Getz on saxophone. (Kudos to whoever came up with that stroke of genius. Added touches don’t get much cooler than that.) While there might not be any other hits here, there are a handful of perfectly pleasant, if not exactly must-hear, album cuts here, most notably the sunny reggae of “Better Be True” and the fun, Cajun-tinged “Old Antone’s.”

Hard at Play (1991, EMI)

B

Three years (and a change of labels from their longtime home of Chrysalis to EMI) since their last outing, Huey and the boys seem noticeably re-energized here. It’s not a complete return to form, so it still pales in comparison to the high standards set by the trilogy of Picture This, Sports, and Fore!, and the early-‘90s-styled production can sound quite dated at times (especially on the otherwise appealing and catchy danceable grooves of “Attitude”), but as far as songwriting goes, this is a more noticeably consistent full-length from start to finish than the spotty Small World, and “That’s Not Me,” the hard-hitting blues-rock of “Build Me Up,” the vaguely Hall & Oates-like soul-pop of “We Should Be Making Love” and “He Don’t Know,” and the “Stuck with You”-like “Best of Me” all outshine the majority of the filler from Small World, while the countrified “Time Ain’t Money” is arguably the best closing cut of any Huey Lewis album since the cover of “Buzz-Buzz-Buzz” that closed Picture This. The album also yielded two Top 40 hits: the “Workin’ for a Livin’”-like nine-to-five frustration of the pounding rocker “Couple Days Off,” and, even better, the extremely underrated “It Hit Me Like a Hammer,” which would have fit perfectly onto Sports or Fore! It sounds slightly less organic than the albums that preceded it, but if you can get past the occasional awkward production touches, this is the band’s best outing since Fore!  

Four Chords and Several Years Ago (1994, Elektra)

B –    

There’s sadly no new original material here, nor are there many recognizable radio hits included here, either, but the covers album Four Chords is one of the band’s more charming latter-day releases, not merely because it’s an inspired and loving homage to their favorite R&B music of the ‘50s and ‘60s, but because Huey Lewis and the News, being the great R&B-influenced rock-and-roll bar band that they began as and never really stopped being, even when they were packing arenas, sound perfectly natural and right at home playing this kind of music. This isn’t to say that everything here works, and the album does admittedly take a real dive in quality anytime the band ventures into pure blues territory on cuts like Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” or St. Louis Jimmy’s “Going Down Slow.” But when the band keeps more within the confines of soul and R&B, such as on their covers of Lloyd Price’s “Stagger Lee,” Fats Domino’s “Blue Monday,” James Ray’s “If You Gotta Make a Fool of Somebody,” and the more obscure Clifford Curry tune “She Shot a Hole in My Soul” and the Dan Penn-penned “You Left the Water Running,” the band fares wonderfully. There are also two minor radio hits here, the band’s winning cover of the J.J. Jackson classic “But It’s Alright” and their equally strong rendition of the Soul Brothers Six tune “(She’s) Some Kind of Wonderful,” previously a Top Ten hit in the mid-‘70s for Grand Funk.

Plan B (2001, Silvertone)

B –   

The band’s first studio outing in seven years finds some notable changes: first, former bassist Mario Cipollina is gone, having been replaced with Pablo Cruise alumnus (and in-demand session bassist) John Pierce. Secondly, the band – likely having decided that its days as a force on Top 40 radio were done, anyway – has given itself a makeover, expanding the lineup to include a full-time horn section and shedding its more rock-oriented sound of old to delve more deeply into soul. The makeover never sounds bad (although the decision to bring in country star Wynonna to duet on “I’m Not in Love Yet” is really, really jarring, not in the least since it’s the first song in the band’s vast catalog to feature anyone other than simply Huey on lead vocals), but it’s hard not to miss the band’s sound of old and the way they would brilliantly incorporate R&B and soul touches into their own distinct brand of pop-rock, employing a brass section solely on cuts that really screamed out for one. So the album consequently never feels exactly like the same band we grew to love from Sports or Fore!, and it takes some warming up to, especially since the very first two cuts are the heavily-organ-drenched blues of “We’re Not Here for a Long Time” and the retro-flavored “My Other Woman,” both of which sound more suitable for Four Chords and Several Years Ago. The band fares much better when they don’t steer so far away from their more contemporary-sounding pop-soul of old, such as on the groovy “Thank You, No. 19,” the breezy “I Ain’t Perfect,” and best of all, “Let Her Go and Start Over,” penned by their old friend, Wet Willie’s Mike Duke, who had penned two of their previous Top 40 hits (including the Top Ten hit “Doing It All for My Baby”).  The album’s mostly pleasant, and different though this is from the albums of the band’s commercial heyday, the set of songs is still slightly superior to those on Small World so you’ll likely find more songs here to want to re-visit, but it’s certainly not essential, either.

Soulsville (2010, W.O.W.)

C    

After a nine-year hiatus from recording, the band returns yet again – sadly, this time, sans longtime guitarist Chris Hayes, who is replaced by another Pablo Cruise alumnus, Stef Burns (it should be pointed out that Huey Lewis and the News and Pablo Cruise shared the same manager, Bob Brown, for much of the ‘80s) – for another full-blown covers album, this time recording at the famed Ardent Studios and focusing purely on the music of the Stax/Volt catalog more of the mid-to-late ‘60s and very early ‘70s. Like Four Chords and Several Years Ago, it’s all very pleasant and the band sounds great doing it (especially on “Don’t Fight It,” “Got to Get You Off My Mind,” and “Never Found a Girl”), and it helps the album considerably that they’ve largely chosen more obscure cuts over ones from the Stax catalog that have been covered ad nauseum. But it’s hard not to wonder while you're listening to the disc (particularly considering that the band has had multiple gifted songwriters grace their ranks over the years, particularly Johnny Colla, Chris Hayes, and Huey himself) if the band has hit a wall creatively when you consider that they’ve only made three albums since 1991, two of which have been entirely comprised of covers. The album’s perfectly enjoyable, but like so many other veteran artists in recent years – namely, Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow – who are certainly capable of writing good songs but have resorted far too often to putting out cover albums, too much of this sort of thing can just feel like a holding pattern and a shameless cash grab, so here’s hoping the next album from the band is not similarly another covers affair. 

Compilations:

It’s not entirely flawless (it’s sadly missing two of the band’s Top 40 hits, “Walking on a Thin Line” and the underrated “It Hit Me Like a Hammer,” but is otherwise complete; it’s also worth noting that the band’s Number One hit “The Power of Love” was never released on a regular studio LP in America, so a hits compilation is your easiest way to obtain the song), but Greatest Hits is still a pretty well-done compilation, even going out of its way to include slightly-tricky-to-obtain non-LP cuts (such as the live version of “Trouble in Paradise” given to the We Are the World benefit album, the cover of the Impressions’ “It’s All Right” the band recorded for a Curtis Mayfield tribute album, and the Back to the Future soundtrack offering “Back in Time”). Just as cool, the album also goes out of its way to include Huey’s criminally underrated cover of the Smokey Robinson classic “Cruisin’,” taken from the soundtrack of Huey’s movie Duets, and featuring Gwyneth Paltrow as his duet partner. Believe it or not, Paltrow can really sing and shows off a bit of soul, and reworking the song as a duet allows Huey and Gwyneth to harmonize absolutely beautifully together to marvelous effect; it’s a shame the single didn’t get more exposure, because it’s easily one of Huey’s finest moments on record since the band’s ‘80s heyday.