When I was a sophomore at Syracuse University, I went on a grunty guys' trip to Niagara Falls. (The Canadian side, if you know what I mean.) The jalopy we took didn't have a CD player, but the radio worked well enough. To curb fighting for the dial, we set up a system where each dude could pick a song. When it was your turn and you heard something you liked, you'd shout out. Van Halen: "Stop!" Motley Crue: "Yes!" And so on.
Finally, I was up. It didn't take me long to find a tune. I couldn't help myself. As soon as I heard the baroque guitar plucks of Jim Croce's Time in a Bottle — a song that always time-travels me to the backseat of my parents' circa-'79 Oldsmobile — I shouted out with emotion. "I'll take it!" Helpless to resist, I then started singing along to the lyrical devastation: I've looked around enough to know / That you're the one I want to go through time with.
Now let me say with absolute authority: If you ever want to kill a road trip, Time in a Bottle is a good place to start. "Duuude …" said one of my friends, shaking his head. I cowered and eventually gave up. "Uh, you can change it if you want to."
From then on, I went underground with my addiction:
I love soft hits.
Especially those slightly stoned ones from such hirsute '70s practitioners as Bread (Everything I Own), Orleans (Dance With Me), 10cc (I'm Not in Love) and, of course, James Taylor and Carole King, who just happen to be playing an awesomely touchy-feely double bill at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa on Sunday.
Three hours of live soft hits?
I'm misting up as I write this.
I figure now's the time to come out with my secret shame. Hall-of-fame singer-songwriters Taylor (Shower the People, Fire and Rain, Sweet Baby James) and King (So Far Away, It's Too Late, You've Got a Friend) epitomize the very essence of the soft-hit formula: often acoustic-based, ethereal, highly romantic, earnest. It's the music of the peacenik — or at least the dude trying to get lucky at the beach bonfire.
The soft hit is not to be confused with the schmaltz of, say, Celine Dion, Michael Bolton or David Foster. My Heart Will Go On is manufactured pap; Carolina in My Mind is genuine gushy brilliance. When Mariah Carey belts a song, that's a ballad. When Chicago's Peter Cetera croons If You Leave Me Now, that's a soft hit. Earthy, vaguely crunchy, the soft hit is unassuming and tender.
It doesn't long to be epic.
It just wants to cuddle.
Soft hits are my opium. Ace's How Long. Ambrosia's How Much I Feel. The Bellamy Brothers' Let Your Love Flow. Dan Hill's Sometimes When We Touch.
Wow, I'm starting to get dizzy.
I keep a supply of soft hits everywhere: at work, in the car, at home, on my iPod. At least once a week, I'll be taking a walk with earbuds in and run into someone I know. "So what's the music critic listening to?" they'll ask. I'll flash 'em the heavy-metal salute and say something along the lines of: "Got a little AC/DC Highway to Hell going on." Never mind that I actually have a little Captain & Tennille Love Will Keep Us Together going on.
Now don't get me wrong. I like a lot of different music. I dig weird new stuff like the Dead Weather and Broken Bells. Bob Dylan is my all-time favorite musician. I buy AC/DC on vinyl. My job as a pop music critic demands widespread tastes — or, at the very least, widespread curiosity.
But still, there are moments in my week when, in lieu of whiskey or cigs or black tar heroin, I will curl into the fetal position and hit play on Carly Simon's Haven't Got Time for the Pain or Stephen Bishop's It Might Be You or Cat Stevens' The Wind. That's pure, uncut soft hit right there.
The crass music marketplace in 2010 doesn't crank out many soft hits, mainly because anything that's manufactured and blatantly manipulative is missing the point. In order for a soft hit to work, the heart-sleeved artist has to believe what he or she is singing. Colbie Caillat's Bubbly got close; so did John Mayer's Daughters. But most young pop practitioners today are more worried about landing on Perez Hilton's saucy website than chronicling the acne-riddled battlefield of life At Seventeen.
The world would greatly benefit from a massive soft-hit resurgence; after all, a populace intent on making eyes at each other — instead of, say, making money, making Jersey Shore, making war — sounds like fun to me. The buzz around the Taylor-King tour gives me hope. And boy, could we use some of that around here.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life column runs every Sunday in Floridian.
Sean Daly's Top 10 Soft Hits
10: Just Once, James Ingram
9: Still the One, Orleans
8: It Don't Matter to Me, Bread
7: Don't Give Up On Us, David Soul
6: Crazy Love, Poco
5: Time Passages, Al Stewart
4: I'm Not in Love, 10cc
3: Get Closer, Seals & Crofts
2: Time in a Bottle, Jim Croce
1: I'd Really Love to See You Tonight, England Dan & John Ford Coley
If you go:
Carole King and James Taylor's Troubadour Reunion: This concert in the round features two of the most popular singer-songwriters from the 1970s on a worldwide tour. The show is at 8 p.m. Sunday at the St. Pete Times Forum, 401 Channelside Drive, Tampa. $35-$95. (813) 301-2500; www.stpetetimesforum.com
On TV: WUSF is showing Carole King, James Taylor, Live at the Troubadour at 3:30 p.m. today in at least some parts of the bay area. Check local listings.