John Sebastian
The Best of John Sebastian
(Rhino 70170)

My admiration for John Sebastian as a songwriter tends to exceed the "l'il puppy" value I can put on his music. If ever there were a consistent "five l'il puppy" performer – solid, pleasant, enjoyable, warm and sometimes surprising, but never reaching that special place of totally deep connection – it is John Sebastian, former leader of the Lovin' Spoonful and well-known for the "Welcome Back Kotter" theme.

I used to be pretty heavily into the Spoonful and Sebastian (in both cases, "heavily into" meaning I listened to the one best-of I had by each, a lot), and now sort of feel the same way about them that I do John Fogerty: there is an unavoidable comic element to the music that exists in tandem with all the brilliant moments.

Just as you can't help but smirk derisively when you hear Fogerty wailing "Welllll" in "Green River" (even though you may well love the song), it's hard to hear John Sebastian's relentless positivity in these jaded times without attaching some sort of irony factor to it … but in the end I think the important thing is that his songs are quietly amazing.

He's easily one of the more underrated songwriters of the rock era, and his recent forays into roots music and jug-band music in particular only underscore his essential curiosity factor. I've never gotten a real feeling for who the guy is or how he sees his place in musical history – but there's a whole lot to be said for a guy who can write songs that make virtually everyone smile when they hear them ("Daydream," "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind," "Do You Believe in Magic?").

I'm not sure if it matters whether you're smiling out of pure enjoyment or sarcasm … either way, you're smilin'.

The Best of John Sebastian, released by Rhino in 1989, concentrates on John's post-Spoonful career between 1970 and 1976, not straying beyond that into the nebulous late 70s – so this is pretty much the primo collection of Sebastian's solo output.

Yes, "Welcome Back" is here (the full single version, harmonica solo and all) – and it's a great song, even apart from the pleasing images of Gabe Kaplan & Co. it conjures. There's a whole lot of greatness here too: the splendid "Face of Appalachia," the country lilt of "Stories We Could Tell," the travelog "The Four of Us" (excerpted from a conceptual album-side that ran up to like 17 minutes – and no keyboard solos. Take that, Yes) – the pretty "She's a Lady," and even the blues-rock of "Red-Eye Express" and "Well, Well, Well."

Through it all, Sebastian's warm voice provides a perfect instrument for the optimistic lyrics and homey storytellin'. Not everything here is wonderful – some is MOR fluff (the utterly unmemorable "She's Funny," the harp-drenched "I Had a Dream," the sleep-inducing "Magical Connection"), but most of it is very pleasing.

In fact, I love this CD in a very unexplainable way that I would not be able to argue in print … I recognize the occasional mediocrity for what it is, yet it's so winning that I don't care.

The tracks are programmed generally chronologically, and it's one of those rare discs that actually gets better after track 7 – the disc opens with two great songs, then four straight snoozers, then picks up with seven straight great ones, and finally three fair-to-good ones.

It's like a lot of mid-period Rhino releases that way – chronology kills the cat. Included are two Lovin' Spoonful remakes ("You're a Big Boy Now," done with voice and guitar only, and "Didn't Want to Have to Do It," done in super-70s prom-ballad mode), not among the big standouts, but welcome nonetheless.

And the standouts are eternal – "Face of Appalachia" alone is worth the price of the disc – and altogether this is well worth checking out. Miserable pre-Photoshop cover design features an excessively unflattering picture of the artist that will win over no one under 40.

It may be time for someone to do a more serious reassessment of John Sebastian to bring him into the songwriting pantheon alongside Brian Wilson, Lou Christie and, um, I guess John Fogerty – okay, I see now why I have no credibility making statements like that.

Review by Jerry Garcia-Pizza