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The Raw Power of Really Smooth Music

Climb aboard the Yacht Rock revolution at this week's Michael McDonald/Steely Dan show

And if you root around through the friends of Yacht Rock on the show's fan page on MySpace (www.myspace.com/yacht_rock), you'll find that most of the people on there are into Pitchfork-endorsed bands like those on Brem's list. And until the show came along, few would uncloset their jones for the Doobies, even ironically. (And it seems that the love for yacht rock goes past that.)

After all, that stuff's for Sunny listeners, right? Hell, yacht rock has been derided by critics, record store clerks and other bastions of the hipster elite for 30 years. From the advent of the Clash, the Ramones, and Elvis Costello, if you were white and wanted to score any cool points, you had to be into music that was jagged and spastic, not smooth and silky.

It's a cliche now -- "angular" music is supposed to be where it's at. You know -- Devo, Wire, XTC, Gang of Four, Talking Heads in the old guard, and then Pavement and all their imitators later. Virtually all American and British indie rock is bony, wiry music, often with numerous time signature changes and obtuse lyrics. It makes demands rather than delivers invitations. This is the stuff you are supposed to be jamming if you want to be with the times.

Yacht rock is none of those things. The music is full-bodied, cool and mellow as a frosty mug of Lowenbrau, yet somehow light and airy as a glass of rosé wine.

And it's that rarest of white music forms -- one that is embraced across the color line. Among black audiences, McDonald ranks just ahead of Lisa Stansfield, the Average White Band and Jon B. and just behind Teena Marie as the most popular white R&B artist ever.

"I've always felt fortunate, back as far as the Doobies, that we've always been embraced by black radio," McDonald says. "In fact, as a solo artist, had it not been for black radio, you would never have heard of me. My first couple of singles -- 'Keep Forgettin'' and 'Sweet Freedom,' which wound up being top ten contemporary hit radio records -- they started out on R&B radio. It was because we got such a push from black radio that we even got on mainstream formats."

Other yacht rockers have had an influence on black music as well, far greater ones than any of the buzzed-about angular bands have had. Hall and Oates's "I Can't Go for That" was a number one R&B hit, and that song, along with Steely Dan's "Peg," were both sampled by De La Soul on the rap trio's earth-shatteringly groundbreaking album Three Feet High and Rising. (Steely Dan has also been sampled by Ice Cube, MF Doom, and Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz.)

Local rap genius Devin the Dude is a major fan of yacht rock music, though he calls it by another name. When I interviewed him last year, he said that he grew up partly on a diet of Ambrosia, the Steve Miller Band, the Eagles, Steely Dan, Paul Simon and Paul McCartney/Wings -- albums he fished out of a nearby radio station's dumpster. "Casey Kasem–type tracks," he called 'em -- and there's even a James Taylor sample on To Tha X-Treme.

So you can call this music bland and overproduced if you see it that way, but to call it "painfully white" is just plain wrong. As for us, we think this stuff's got soul -- maybe not much funk or grit, but soul nonetheless. And hell, with Iran and North Korea swinging their nuclear dicks, American soldiers dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israelis and Palestinians at each other's throats and an ongoing crime wave in the streets of Houston, these days we'd rather be soothed by the smooth sounds of yacht rock than the herky-jerky strains of Tapes N' Tapes or some such.

And evidently I am not alone. Anchors aweigh!

Michael McDonald and Steely Dan perform Friday, July 14, at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 2025 Lake Robbins Drive. Call 713-629-3700 for more info.

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