Aphrodisiacs on CD

Can those TV love-song albums get you in the mood?

Of all the aphrodisiacs available on television and the Internet, Touched by Love is the only one to be certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America. And make no mistake, an aphrodisiac is what it is. You’ve seen the late-night TV spots that hawk direct-retail CD compilations: A couple is lounging in a darkened living room, breathlessly pre-coital, and yet somehow needing that one last push that only ‘70s and ‘80s soft-rockers can provide. “We try to recapture the feelings one has felt in love during the period we’re trying to sell,” says Eric Berman, creative director of Illinois-based Cornerstone Promotions, which under the name TVMusic4U markets Touched by Love, Cherish the Love, Teenage Crush, and about 20 other titles. “What we’re doing is selling people their memories, and what better memories are there to sell?” In other words: Nostalgia is erotic!

This seemed like an odd notion, so I decided to bring some fake science to bear. On a recent Monday night I settled down in the family room with my wife (who for the purposes of this study will be identified as “Jennifer C.”), a bottle of wine, some candles, and three love-song sets: Touched by Love, which—with sales topping 500,000 units—has been one of TVMusic4U’s flagship titles since its release in 1997, plus Cherish the Love and Feel the Love, albums that seemed to cover the appropriate chronological bases. Another couple, Taylor E. and Amy N., agreed to serve as extra ears. We’d assign a numerical sexiness rating to every track, from a high of 5 (roughly corresponding to The Miracles’ “Ooh Baby Baby”) to a low of 1 (Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA”). Then we’d average the track ratings for each disc and tally a score, which we dubbed, in homage to an essential ‘80s soul crooner, the Peabo Scale.

We dimmed the lights and started with Touched by Love, not only for its gold-record status but also for its line-drawing cover, which we all felt was the sexiest packaging of the three.

Touched by Love
Disc 1 began unpromisingly with Eric Carmen’s “Make Me Lose Control,” whose booming chorus and chiming keyboards suggested not imminent lovemaking but Family Skate at the Rollerama. Things started looking up with Grover Washington Jr. and Bill Withers’ “Just the Two of Us”: “I’m not quite ripping my clothes off, but it’s close,” Jennifer observed. Jack Wagner’s ultra-drippy “All I Need” sent the evening crashing to earth (Taylor: “The depth of foulness”), but the Manhattans’ “Kiss and Say Goodbye”perked us up again with its old-school spoken-word introduction. We were disappointed, however, that the set had taken until Track 8 to reach this level of romance: “You gotta hope the girl hasn’t gone home by now,” Amy said. Disc 1 never really recovered after this point, reaching its inevitable nadir with Dan Hill’s “Sometimes When We Touch,” which we all agreed was loathsomely unsexy.

America’s “Sister Golden Hair,” which kicked off Disc 2, prompted only bafflement: “Maybe if you were on a commune,” Jennifer offered. A similar confusion greeted the Cars’ “Drive,” while we all felt Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”had a mood-killing edge of desperation. By the time Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful” closed the set, our weariness far outweighed any thoughts of romance.

Conclusion: Gold record or not, puzzling song selections and a tendency to bathos hold this one back.

Score: Feel the Love
After an early landscape dotted with late-’80s/early-’90s nobodies like Firehouse and Expose, we practically wept with joy when the needle dropped on Earth, Wind, and Fire (Track 11, “After the Love Has Gone”). Even Meat Loaf (“Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”) sounded good, and we all acknowledged a guilty attachment to Boston’s ” More Than a Feeling.”(Amy admitted having made out to it, but immediately apologized.) Sexiness was beginning to rear its head.

On to Disc 2, which started strong with Cheap Trick’s “The Flame”but ground to a halt with Harry Nilsson’s “Without You,” which my wife aptly characterized as ” music to hang yourself to.” We all liked J.D. Souther’s “You’re Only Lonely,” but everyone agreed that the set’s earlier power-chording momentum had been arrested by an odd rip in the generational canvas: What child of the ‘70s remembers “Unchained Melody” fondly?

Conclusion: Some promising selections, but too many memories of the musical wasteland that was the 1980s and too few moments of real romance.

Score: We held out our last sexy hopes for:

Cherish the Love
The strain was starting to show by now. Kool and the Gang’s “Cherish,” which I liked, had Jennifer muttering abstractly about “birds pecking my eyes out.” We perked up for Jim Croce’s “I’ll Have To Say I Love You in a Song,” observing that Croce gets romantic points for dying young, and for Hall and Oates’ “Sara Smile.” Unfortunately, this momentum was squandered by the Disc 1 closer, Christopher Cross’ “Sailing,”which Taylor felt was better suited to ” shopping for T-shirts in St. Augustine  than fostering a sexy mood.

Similarly, the Disc 2 opener, Air Supply’s “The One That You Love,”drew low marks for its disturbing Gilbert and Sullivan feel. The set finished strong, however, with Peaches and Herb’s “I Pledge My Love” (Taylor: “Oh, yeah. Here we go”); Bread’s “Baby I’m-A Want You,” whose swath of real strings made up for the mystifying Chico Marx patois of the title; the Stylistics’ dreamy “You Are Everything” and Aretha Franklin’s “Until You Come Back to Me,” which prompted a simple and heartfelt “Thank God” from Amy, although she may have been referring less to the song than to the experiment’s end.

Conclusion: The class of the field, relatively speaking. A few missteps, but a strong finish and some actual soul.

Score: It was late. The lights were low. I looked at my wife. Taylor looked at Amy. We all waited for someone to speak. It was Jennifer who finally broke the silence and spoke what was in all our hearts. She said: “Is there any ice cream?” And then, oh yes: We had ice cream.