Leo Sayer

Just a Box: The Complete Studio Recordings 1971-2006

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Fourteen discs is a commitment. No matter how affordable it is -- and Just a Box: The Complete Studio Recordings 1971-2006 is affordable, averaging about two pounds a disc upon its initial release -- 14 discs takes time and devotion. The latter is a word not often associated with Leo Sayer, who had four major cross-continental hits in the late '70s -- "Long Tall Glasses (I Can Dance)," "You Make Me Feel Like Dancing," "When I Need You," "More Than I Can Say" -- before fading into a place of permanent celebrity in his native U.K. and, later, his adopted home of Australia. That constant presence, assisted by appearances on television including U.K.'s Celebrity Big Brother, overshadows both how he hasn't had a hit record since 1983 and how he's never really abandoned his recording career, either. All these highs and lows are tracked in Just a Box, which contains all 12 of his studio albums between 1971 and 2006, then rounds up the oddities, demos, and non-LP tracks over the course of two discs. Taken as a whole, this is a pretty fascinating aural history of state-of-the-art pop production of the last third of the 20th century. Sayer started out as post-McCartney singer/songwriter unabashedly in the vein of Elton John and he never veered too far from the trail John blazed, not even when he adopted a bit of Bowie's theatrics at first or when Richard Perry streamlined and slickened his sounds on Endless Flight was Elton far from view. Once Sayer was an international hitmaker in his own right, he slowly, surely turned toward straight adult contemporary, which also meant that he adapted to trends. He happily adopted disco on 1979's Here and that turned into yacht rock on 1980's Living in a Fantasy. He gave those soft sounds the slightest of a new wave dressing in the early '80s (World Radio, Have You Ever Been in Love), before coming back with the gaudy, clattering synthesizers of Cool Touch, an album that sounds like 1990 without ever belonging to it. More silence followed, before he did a comeback with a classy dose of nostalgia on 2005's Voice in My Head, a canny and often silly bit of commercial pop designed to appeal to those who care. Each phase is slightly more interesting than expected: Silverbird, Just a Boy, and Another Year are artier, quirkier than the Perry productions would suggest, while the Perry-driven Endless Flight, Thunder in My Heart, and Leo Sayer are examples of a how a producer can carve a piece of sharp pop product. The rest are period pieces and are fascinating because they are: it's a musical travelogue through bad fashion, questionable taste, and catchy melodies.

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