Picks and Pans Review: Peek-a-Boo: the Best of Nrbq 1969-1989

updated 12/17/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/17/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST


Let's face it, pop music is not based on the merit system. If it were, George Michael would be playing down at Red"s Recovery Room for a piece of the $5 cover charge and NRBQ (an acronym for New Rhythm and Blues Quartet) would be decorating the walls of their mansions with platinum records, instead of the other way around.

Truly talented, quirky and original, NRBQ has labored in relative obscurity for two decades, an oversight that, ideally, this boisterous double anthology would rectify. (You can't call it a greatest-hits package, because they've never had a hit.)

Early on in the band's history, there was some changing of the guard, but 16 years ago the lineup stabilized into the supernal quartet of pianist Terry Adams, guitarist Al Anderson, bass player Joey Spampinato and drummer Tom Ardolino.

These guys hold a lot of cards, but their strongest suit is their versatility. Rock, pop, Boogie, R&B. modified surf, pig-in-a-polka—they can play it all. If their instruments ever got hijacked, they probably could rustle up a set of rap.

On Peek-a-Boo, their proclivity for pretty pop tunes is amply represented with "Mona," "I Love Her, She Loves Me" and others. The apotheosis of their gentler side is "Feel You Around Me," a bewitching, sprightly tune that a Top 40 group like the Turtles would have killed to call their own. The oddly muted piano on this song will remind pop scholars of Thunderclap Newman. In fact, Adams achieved the effect by laying his shirt inside the grand. That's NRBQ for you. Even at their most conventional, there's always an unpredictable twist to the melody or the instrumentation.

This is no easy-listening exercise. These guys know how to rock and roll with the best of them, as they prove on "It Comes to Me Naturally" and on a jacked-to-the-gills cover of Johnny Cash's "Get Rhythm." On many songs, the writing betrays influences, such as the Beatlesque 'That's Alright" with its lovely harmonies and the Beach Boyish "Ridin" in My Car." But other songs could only be the work of the fiendishly clever NRBQ. Take for examples the kinky skiffle of "Still in School" or the whiplashing moods of "Green Lights."

Whatever style they are pursuing at any given moment, they always observe the essential pop imperative: Keep it short and sweet. And they play everything with the same exquisite musicianship.

Adams's captivating, often surprising piano playing is what you notice first. Listen to him slap and tickle the ivories on a fiery cover of "I Got a Rocket in My Pocket" or roll out both barrels on "Magnet" or do a brilliant jazz-tempered boogie-woogie lead-in to "RC Cola and a Moon Pie." All members have their inspired moments, for instance, Anderson's kangaroo-leap guitar solos on "I Want You Bad." Spampinato and Ardolino provide a consistently deep rhythm pocket.

While NRBQ is universally acknowledged to be one of the best live bands ever to ride the wild backbeat, this collection demonstrates near equal competence in the studio. Unfortunately, many of their releases on various labels are now out of print. Probably got squeezed off the racks to make room for George Michael's. (Rhino)

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