Let’s change things up a bit from the heavy metal insanity of my last review shall we? Let’s review the sweetest, gentlest music I can think of off the top of my head. That’ll do!
In the world of 60’s orchestrated folk pop, the Mama’s and the Papa’s sometimes seem to get a bad rap. At least to this reviewer. “Hippie crap!” is one such refrain from various anti-fans around the world. “Fey nonsense, pre-built drama foisted on the brain dead and stupid!” is another. Or perhaps these are the jeers I’m imagining my punk rock friends throwing at the Mama’s and the Papa’s.
Or perhaps I’m simplifying things. Probably as this is often times my “modus operandi.”
The Mama’s and the Papa’s were definitely a bit “soft” but this was actually their advantage: in a world of increasingly heavy rock and roll values, they represented a bit of the old “ultra violently beautiful” if you will. That is to say, they took the “Pet Sound” vibe and ran with it.
That isn’t really fair to the Mama’s and the Papa’s or creative leader John Phillips but there’s some truth there: their lush, evocative and fully arranged folk style had similar production flourishes when compared to that Beach Boys masterpiece.
Throw in a solid bit of melancholy from Phillips, the only songwriter in the band and you got a similar sound, style and vibe. But with it’s own creative persona that we’re going to delve into here in a moment.
But first I must mention the vocal harmonies. We’re about to gush here.
The Mama’s and the Papa’s vocal harmonies were, without a doubt, the most luscious, complex and fully realized in the world of pop in the 60’s (and perhaps even to this day). Yes, even more so than the Beach Boys.
I’m not knocking the Beach Boys with this statement: it’s just that, at his best as vocal arranger, Phillips was either at Wilson’s peak level or surpassing it on every other song. While not a strong singer himself (he was the only member to never sing lead) he was backed by the amazing singing voices of wife (and scamp) Michelle Phillips, “Mama” Cass and Denny Doherty.
All three were knock out singers with their own individual style and amazing ability to blend in with each other. “Mama” Cass was a knockout blues belter who could tear down the house with a single screech; Doherty was an old style crooner who could also hit heavy moments when necessary; Phillips was a bit more coy, not a stronger singer, but of a bit of a sex kitten vocally.
I’m sure little of that makes sense but let’s move on.
Of course, the Beach Boys have The MP’s beaten on a lot of other levels: composition wise, Wilson handily beats Phillips. Phillips songs tend to vacillate around simple folk/pop forms and melodies: catchy and solid but not groundbreaking the way Wilson’s best work remains.
Instead, Phillips (and the in house orchestral arrangers) lavished his simple songs on this amazing debut album with deep, endless but appropriate arrangements that made each song seem like a mini-epic.
Amazingly, the arrangers were able to avoid complete mush most of the time: sometimes, they left the arrangements as simple as the song needed. For example, “California Dreaming” (their signature song) starts out with an evocative guitar figure that dances around the melody before you’re SLAMMED in the face with a wall of vocal harmonies.
The song’s arrangements grow lusher but not excessively, capping off with a simple, beautiful, wintery flute solo that actually makes the song feel more epic than originally envisioned.
Riding the waves of Phillips vocal harmonies one can often ignore or miss his lyrics. That’s a mistake. While no means the next coming of Dylan, Phillips simple tales of heart ache (influenced by his own bad decisions making and poor life decisions) creates simple poetry that can hit you harder than all the “darkness at the break of noon”-type Dylan passages put together.
Take, for example, “Go Where You Wanna Go” perhaps the best song on here. Yes, “Monday, Monday” and “California Dreaming” (both were on the same album) are more famous and justifiably so but “Go Where You Wanna Go” really gets to the heart of the Mama and Papa’s legend.
The lyrical message is timeless” “go where you wanna go and do what you wanna do with whoever you wanna do it with” may sound like hippie gibberish but it’s actually a command from Phillips to Michelle as a way of trying to force her out of his life.
This makes Michelle’s plea of “you don’t understand/that a girl like me can’t love, just one maaan” all the more heart rending. Even if the lyric is “CAN love just one man” (which it may be, but I always hear it as “can’t”) the sentiment possesses and incredible power due to the circumstance of the band at the time.
The orchestra has this amazing ability to kick in at just the right time on this album: the next segment with the plaintive lyrics of “three thousand miles, that’s how far I’ve gone” (or whatever) are backed with a simple but beautiful orchestral part that brings tears to my eyes every time.
Perhaps I’m just a sentimental sucker. But I even get a kick out of the “rocking” tunes on the album such as “Straight Shooter” (with it’s simple but cool looping riff) and boastful lyrics. Sure, it may seem a tad stale as a “real’ rocker but as a change of pace it really works.
Likewise to “The ‘In’ Crowd” which if the first showcase of Cass’s vocal skills. She belts out this simple tune with all the bluesy bluster and delicacy (at times) that the song requires. It’s another example of the type of blustery boastfulness that may seem out of place but which sure sounds cool when it’s arranged and sung so well.
Then there are the covers: the Beatles “I Call Your Name” is an excellent song enhanced by the MP’s vocal presence and slight cabaret style. “Do You Wanna Dance” is the most slowed down, wimpy take of this particular song I’ve ever heard which gives it a pleading, despairing feel absent from the more exciting Beach Boys take.
“Spanish Harlem” is a beautifully arranged tune that again may seem out of place if you’re a hard core “style and tone” fanatic (i.e. all albums must have a singular tone and style unique to them) but which adds a nice touch of diversity to the proceedings.
I’m honestly tempted to go through every song and review them individually as each song brings something to the table: the simple gentleness of “Got a Feeling” and the exuberance of the cover of “You Baby” being perhaps the best songs I hadn’t yet mentioned.
Honestly, I could write a whole review of the vocal harmonies of this album, focusing on all the nooks and crannies of the call and response, subtly shifting textures and adrenaline pumping excitement of some of these harmonies.
Yes that’s right: I said adrenaline pumping. The opening harmonies on “Go Where You Wanna Go” are head spinning in their complexity and trying to sing along to them will give you fits. But I try every time.
Basically, the Mama’s and the Papa’s were a highly unique band from the very start that head their own unique variation on a style, a genius vocal arranger with solid songwriting skills, four solid singers, amazing arrangements and impeccable taste.
And terrifyingly difficult home lives. But I won’t go into that: that’s been discussed to death. The band was able to cling together for three more solid albums (the second, self titled album being perhaps even better than this) while pumping out one crappy reunion album in the 70’s.
The best way to experience this band is to get a compilation of their first four albums (I bought a two CD comp, “All the Leaves are Brown” that collected all four in the early 2000’s which apparently went out of print one minute after I bought it) and just sit down and listen to them all in a row, starting with this one. You really won’t believe your eyes and ears.
Songs to YouTube:
You have probably heard the hits so try out “Go Where You Wanna Go,” “Straight Shooter,” “Got a Feeling” and even “Hey Girl” to see the different styles the band was capable of producing. They weren’t just constantly in ballad land.
And so my little break stretched on and on until it had been nearly a year before I posted anything…so much has changed in so many ways but one thing remains…I love music…and I love writing about music.
Hello fans of “Culture Fusion Reviews.” I hope things are treating you well. I’m doing well. I won’t go into it but I will briefly explain my abrupt departure and my triumphant return as quickly as possible:
- New jobs
- Life in general
- Sustaining interest
And there is the biggest problem with writing blogs: keeping up an interest and sustaining an interest. I decided to come back because my new jobs have balanced out, my love life is non-existent (in a good way) and I had a burst of interest to write about music again.
New format though: not doing complete discographies in a mad rush. This is part of what drove me crazy and bored me to tears. Just doing the last album I heard. And the last album I heard was…
“Birthday Party” by the Idle Race.
“Who the hell?” you may say and you wouldn’t be the only one. Idle Race is one of a million “also-rans” of the psychedelic era that had a somewhat unique vision, a decent songwriting voice and excellent production and solid-to-raving reviews (Marc Bolan of T-Rex was a huge fan) that simply didn’t have the “it” factor to make it big and which disbanded after a few years.
However, you can pick up a two CD collection named “Back to the Story” that includes everything they recorded: three albums and a variety of singles and non-album tracks. None of their songs were a huge hit and you hardly ever hear them mentioned but as a footnote…and the only reason they maintain that footnote status is because of their connection to Electric Light Orchestra.
That’s right, ELO: the pomp and circumstance, cello, violin and guitar “classical” prog-pop band led by somewhat controversial songwriter-guitarist-producer (and owner of huge hair and aviator glasses) Jeff Lynne. Basically, the Idle Race was an early proving ground for Lynne’s songwriting, arranging and production genius.
So, is it any good? That’s an interesting question. It’s not ELO: it’s very much a product of its era. This means the songs are generally very gentle excursions into musical whimsy: a 23 second orchestra version of “Happy Birthday to You” is the second track on the album; sound pans from speaker to speaker; music hall melodies clash again mellotrons and off-beat vocal harmonies; pianos, horns and strings take up a huge section of the sonic blueprint, sometimes drowning out the band themselves (also consisting of drums, bass, guitar and piano; catchy, sometimes complex melodies sustaining interest throughout as the arrangements shift on a dime to give the album a surprising sense of diversity.
Basically, it sounds like any number of minor first rate and major second rate psychedelic bands of the time (not an insult: second rate psychedelic bands are sometimes the most fun) falling more on the “whimsy Sgt. Pepper” vibe as opposed to the “psychotic space ravings” of early Pink Floyd. It’s gentle music for gentle people with an occasional burst of fuzz guitar and bass to wake you up. Basically, they often sound like a rougher, tougher “Left Banke” but without so many intense classical leanings.
The lyrics, however, are a different story. Lynne has never been a super amazing lyricist: for ELO: at his worst he’s competent while at his best he can be insightful and interesting. But the Idle Race, and especially this first album, is an interesting study in “musical and lyrical contrasts” similar to the “Steely Dan” method of contrasting gentle, smooth music with wild lyrics (but with different sonic focuses).
Lynne explores areas of madness, depravity, lust, love and the seedy, crazy side of the world in a way he never really touched in ELO. Songs like “I Like My Toys” are nearly child-like in the music and arrangements with a lyrical message that crouches the concept of “toys” with “madness” in a unique way.
To me, this contrast between musical gentleness and lyrical strangeness is what helps the album stand out a bit from the psychedelic pack: while not exactly a completely unique idea the band pull it off well and in their own unique style. Yes, the basic style is very similar to the whimsy sides of the Beatles psychedelic style but delving even deeper into near child-like levels of silliness and musical lightness.
The production is solid and typical of the time with lots of experiments in filtering, panning, sound effects and a dense layering of sound giving the album a somewhat uniform but still appealing sound. Of course, the album isn’t perfect and has some flaws (the uniform sound, the sometimes grating childishness of things as well as Lynne’s continuing obsession with de-emphasizing his great voice) but it serves as an early taster for greater things for Lynne and serves as a good case for understanding why the great Roy Wood held Jeff in such high esteem and why Jeff was able to briefly conquer the world with ELO.
Songs to check out on YouTube:
First song “Skeleton and the Roundabout” is a harbinger of their general style and of the silly delights of the rest of the album: carnivelesque melodies and arrangements, great vocal melodies, solid band performances and arrangements as well as a lyrical message that will have you scratching your head (in a good way).
“Follow Me Follow” continues in a similar vein but in a more sentimental manner foreshadowing Jeffy’s skills with love ballads.
“Lucky Man” a great music hall atmosphere with solid vocal harmonies, a great refrain and a lyrical message that touches on insanity.