Sunday, December 11, 2011

"Close To You," by Carpenters

Some of the greatest albums in the Rock-and-Roll canon were recorded in the early 1970s. To wit, “What’s Going On?” by Marvin Gaye, “Tapestry,” by Carole King, “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” by Simon and Garfunkel, “Dark Side Of The Moon,” by Pink Floyd, and classic recordings by David Bowie, Elton John, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Nick Drake, and James Taylor, to name just a few. One of my favorites from the era, and a remarkably influential Polaroid from that period of popular music, was the second album by the brother-sister duo from Downey, California: Carpenters, Close To You. “Rollingstone” magazine lists the album as one of the “Best 500 albums” of all time - in the top 200 no less! It's also listed in the 2005 book, "1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die," which inspired the moniker for this blog. And while not the artistic pinnacle of the duo’s career (that would be two albums later, the 1972 classic, A Song For You), it was one of Carpenters best sellers and the album that launched their highly successful, but ultimately tragic career.

The Carpenter family moved from New Haven, Connecticut to Downey, California in the early 1960’s for a job opportunity for Dad Carpenter and to be closer to Los Angeles, where Richard could be closer to the nexus of the music industry. At that time, Richard was the sole musician in the family, while Karen mostly tagged along behind her big brother, tapping the drum kit grudgingly purchased for her by her parents ("girls don’t play the drums"). It wasn’t until later, when recording demos in a friend’s garage studio that, on a whim, Richard put Karen on the microphone, and he realized his little sister could sing. Karen reportedly wasn’t convinced of her remarkable gift until sometime later, with some close friends suggesting she always thought of herself as a “drummer who sang.”

After a few years of gigging around the L.A. music scene, sending demos to and getting rejections from every major recording studio in the industry, the siblings landed a short-lived recording contract with RCA (the prize for winning the Hollywood Bowl “Battle of the Bands,” contest in 1966). The songs recorded with RCA never saw the light of day, however, and the band was released from their contract, as RCA execs felt the duo were not commercial enough. A few years later, their demo landed in the cassette player of Herb Albert, popular musician and co-founder of A&M Records, and he signed the duo in 1969. Their first album, Offering, was less-than-meteoric (although well-worth seeking out), but yielded their first chart single, a startling re-imagination of The Beatles’ classic, “Ticket to Ride.”

After the single and album finished a brief run on the charts, A&M decided to give the duo one more chance, but this time by releasing a final, make-or-break single. Essentially at their label’s mercy, Richard and Karen agreed to record a saccharine Burt Bacharach song, which had been released numerous times in the previous decade to little success. But Herb Albert felt it would be right for Karen’s voice, and frankly, while not thrilled to do so, the siblings had no choice and recorded that tune with over-the-top lyrics (“On the day that you were born the angels got together and decided to create a dream-come-true, so they sprinkled moon dust in your hair and golden starlight in your eyes of blue.”). After the recording session for “(They Long To Be) Close To You,” Herb Albert and Richard Carpenter sat on the stoop in the A&M parking lot, discussing the potential for the single. Carpenter predicted, “It will either be a #1 hit or the biggest stiff the label has ever recorded.” “Close To You” became Carpenters’ first #1 single, remaining in the top position for a month and catapulting the siblings into instant fame and a whirlwind of recording and promotional activity.

And this is how the Close To You album was born, amidst a flurry of activity in the wake of the “overnight success” of the Bacharach single. A&M wanted to leverage the success of the monster hit song, while Richard and Karen were just grateful to still have a recording contract. But having gone through most of their original material on their first album, Richard was left with the task of finding new songs for the follow-up album. Serendipity intervened. As “Close To You” rose on the charts, Richard saw a bank commercial on late night television. He couldn’t help but notice the background song, written by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols, about a young couple just getting started, and he wondered if the jingle existed as a complete song. It didn’t, but when Williams and Nichols were contacted about a full-song, they happily obliged, finishing “We’ve Only Just Begun” by adding another verse and submitting it for recording.

The rest of the Close To You album was recorded in like manner: hurriedly, between promotional engagements and concerts, but the results were astonishing, for an album thrown-together in the duos precious free time between gigs. Including a mix of Carpenter-penned originals with Bacharach and Roger Nichols and Paul Williams songs and another Lennon-McCartney cover, the album was probably the last “rock” effort the duo produced, as they spent the remainder of the early seventies focusing on their sublime hit pop singles. Speaking of hit singles, I’ve always held that, while containing two of the duo’s best-known songs, the album could have spawned even more hits, including the Carpenter original, “Maybe It’s You,” and the Bacharach cover of the Shirelles’ 1961 top-ten hit, “Baby It’s You.” The siblings’ demonstrate their lesser-appreciated rock-and-roll leanings with the Beatles’ “Help!” and the grandiose album closer, the spellbinding Carpenter original, “Another Song.”

The album was a monster, selling millions of copies and launching the duo into the chaos that would be the next five years of hits, constant touring, and television appearances. In hindsight, it was too much. I’ve often wondered what might have been, had the duo taken the remainder of the 1970s off after their hits compilation around the middle of the decade. But sadly, they got caught up in the star-maker machinery, unwisely chasing horrid 1970’s pop culture trends, and essentially losing focus. And while the hits never stopped (in fact, the duo enjoyed top 40 hits on every album released during Karen’s lifetime, up to their final hit single, “Touch Me When We’re Dancing,” #16 in 1981), their albums in the latter part of the decade, while always delivering one or two gems (mostly due to Karen’s creamy, alabaster voice), were largely forgettable efforts. But Close To You reflects a moment when the siblings were young and optimistic. They'd only just begun to do their thing, and the album accidentally became an early 1970’s classic.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

"Don McLean," by Don McLean

In 1971, Don McLean released the single, “American Pie.” This classic song brimmed with imagery of the United States in the 1950’s, as well as the sadness of Buddy Holly’s premature death and McLean’s pointed, rock-and-roll commentary about “the Jester,” Elvis Presley, stealing Holly’s rightful place in the Rock-and-Roll pantheon “in a coat he borrowed from James Dean and a voice that came from you and me…” Okay, okay, so that’s just my take, and feel free to form your own position, because McLean has deftly avoided interpreting the enigmatic pop tune through decades of probing interviews, most frequently describing the meaning of the song’s cryptic lyric as, “It means I’ll never have to work again.”

Fair enough. But as you likely know, “American Pie” was ubiquitous on radio in the early 1970’s, it rocketed to number one on the Billboard charts, remaining there for 4 weeks, and it continues to be a radio staple to this day, garnering new generations of fans every year, who are drawn-in by its rock-and-roll imagery and infectious, sing-a-long chorus. In fact, the song is so revered that it’s used to close down bars at the University of Illinois, has been parodied by the wonderful Weird Al Yankovic, and was even given an electronica treatment by Madonna in 2000 (which I didn’t hate). And besides the follow-up single, the majestic, “Vincent,” a tribute to artist Vincent Van Gogh that reached #12 the following fall and McLean's “comeback” hits from a decade later, the remake of Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” #5, in 1980, and “Castles In The Air,” #12, in 1981, that’s pretty much everything pop fans know of Don McLean.

And this is the problem, since the scattered hits tell only a part of the story, and American Pie isn’t even McLean’s best album. That distinction goes to his third LP, the self-titled, Don McLean: a portrait of the artist in the wake of massive commercial success and wide critical acclaim. Backstory: when McLean recorded the American Pie LP, he was still a relatively unknown singer/songwriter, whose first album, Tapestry, failed to make a dent on the charts (even though it contained two future hits, the original version of the aforementioned, “Castles In The Air,” and the song that Perry Como turned into a hit three years after, the 1973 #29 single, “And I Love You So”). When Don McLean recorded his eponymous third album, however, the eyes of the world were watching. So how does one follow a monstrous one-two punch, like the American Pie album?

For McLean, it included writing an album about the spinning, crushing, whirlwind-lifestyle, “stoking the star-maker machinery behind the popular song.” He introduced the album with the challenging leadoff single, “Dreidel,” (#21 in 1973). The song, while a fitting description of his life in that past year, was a left-turn choice, in terms of selecting a song representative of the album. But maybe that was the point. In fact, half of the introspective Don McClean album finds the artist seeking solace from the typhoon of concerts, interviews, and television appearances that followed the behemoth success of American Pie. Themes reflect in like manner: the emptiness of show business (“Bronco Bill’s Lament,” “The Pride Parade”), love’s mutability (“Falling Through Time,” “Oh My, What A Shame”), a few tender love songs (“If We Try,” “Birthday Song”), and even a novelty remake of a 1920’s ditty (“On The Amazon”). My favorite song on the album, however, has always been “Narcissisma,” with it’s playful, silly lyrics (to wit, “…She’s got no...cryers, no pliers, no liars and no sleeves, and she will always tell you everything that she believes, she's got no belly button too, no high heeled shoe…”) and especially the sassy backing vocals by the West Forty-Forth Street Rhythm and Noise Choir.

What the album, McLean, didn’t do, however, was recreate the American Pie experience, which would have been the most fiscally-responsible choice as well as what the record-buying public expected. Instead, McLean opted to release an album that was true to his personal and artistic journey. Great art. Poor marketing potential. In fact, had McLean been released in 2011, we might have seen a few well-placed, high profile celebrity breakdowns leading up to its release. I can envision McLean visiting a Hollywood salon to borrow clippers for a self-shaved Mohawk before running off, barefoot, into a public men’s room, a public intoxication arrest or, better-yet, an “embarrassing” twitter scandal. These incidents would have beautifully set the stage for the themes included in this album, and perhaps the public would better appreciate it. But as it was, the album quietly limped its way up to #23 and only remained in the Top 40 for a paltry 7 weeks. But I guess I’m lucky. Not everybody has an older brother (hey, Jeff), who purchased the album in the late-1970’s and played it endlessly on the families' wood-grained, 3-speed stereo. For the rest of you, this sensitive, imaginative album must be discovered on your own.

**Oh, and quick, but relevant post script: McLean doesn’t ever get credit for his tremendous singing ability when, in fact, he’s a remarkable singer with tremendous vocal dexterity. And in the age of Britney / Glee / Kanye vocoder-abuse, I appreciate that so much more…

Sunday, July 31, 2011

"Pieces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.," by The Monkees

Everybody knows The Monkees story: the Hollywood trade newspaper, “Variety,” listed an ad titled, “Madness!” enlisting actors and musicians to play a Beatles-like, “Help”-inspired television program, and Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Peter Tork, and Michael Nesmith were selected out of hundreds of hopeful applicants, including (as legend has it) rock legend, Stephen Stills, and the murderous Charles Manson. After one season of the wildly successful “Monkees” television program and two number one albums, pressure from the rock press (who understandably questioned their rock cred - after all, they weren't actually a rock band, they just played one on T.V.) pushed the four actors/musicians to demand artistic control of their recorded albums, resulting in the firing of the golden-eared musical Svengali, Don Kirshner (who would soldier on to continued success in the 1970’s with “The Archies,” another studio invention spawning a number one hit in 1969 with “Sugar Sugar,” and the syndicated TV rock show, “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert”).

Their first album after Kirshner was the wonderful, Headquarters, one of the band’s very best albums (a significant accomplishment, considering it boasts no major radio hits and still rose to the pole position on Billboard’s album charts earlier in 1967), demonstrating that two actors and two musicians thrown together for a television show could hold their own, musically. “Headquarters doesn't show the band to be musical geniuses, but it did prove they were legitimate musicians with enough brains, heart, and soul as anyone else claiming to be a real band in 1967” (All Music Guide). And later that same year, the band submitted the sublime Pieces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., which stands as their very best.

Pieces is a psychedelic pop gem, which featured some of the earliest use of the Moog synthesizer ever recorded as well as the songs of some of pop music’s greatest songwriters, including: Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (“Love Is Only Sleeping”), Harry Nilsson (“Cuddly Toy,” with the royalties of this song allowing Nilsson to quit his then “day job” managing a bank), and Carole King and Jerry Goffin (“Pleasant Valley Sunday” and “Star Collector”). The album also featured some outstanding compositions by Mike Nesmith (“Don’t Call On Me” and the stunning, psychedelic, “Daily Nightly”). Monkees go-to songwriters, Tommy James and Bobby Hart, contributed one of my favorite songs on the album, as well, the haunting, “Words,” featuring Micky on lead vocals and Peter providing the memorable echo in the verse. Great stuff.

Home to two of their most memorable hits (the aforementioned “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” #3, and “Words,” #11), Pieces was the band’s final #1 album. To be sure, hits would follow after Pieces (the delightful and durable “Daydream Believer,” which became a #3 US Country hit for Anne Murray over a decade later, and “Valleri,” the Monkees’ ode to a female name which has received more than it’s fair share of pop homage – from Steve Winwood and Amy Winehouse to name a few), and some of the band’s best songs were yet to be heard (“The Porpoise Song,” "Daddy's Song," and “As We Go Along,” from their 1968 cult film, "Head," and “Listen To The Band,” “I Won’t Be The Same Without Her,” and “Someday Man, - go Roger Nichols and Paul Williams!)” from later albums as a trio, minus Tork, and finally, songs like “Oh My, My,” from the final “original Monkees” LP, the surprisingly strong bubblegum album, Changes), but Pieces was, by all accounts, the Monkees’ last hurrah.

A cartoon band? A manufactured image? A flash-in-the-pan? Criticisms and accusations followed the beleaguered band during their 60’s heyday, but what naysayers couldn’t know in 1967 was that the Monkees would endure: through a decade of 1970’s after-school syndication, through a late-1980’s, MTV-driven resurgence 20 years later, and still drawing sold-out crowds 45 years later for a world-wide summer tour. Maybe the lads (as Ringo calls them) will never be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but I’d argue that they should be, because regardless of how they came to be, The Monkees, Inc., made an indelible mark on the pop music business landscape: The Monkees are arguably the first “boy band” (okay, so maybe that’s not a check in the “plus” column, but it was influential, nonetheless), they are certainly the first rock group to leverage the power of music videos to successfully market their music (pre-dating MTV by 15 years and the "Glee" phenomenon by 43 years!), and they showcased some of the best pop writing of the era, establishing songwriters who were, in fact, later inducted into the same Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, largely due to the Monkees recordings of their songs. But whatever ones’ stance on the Hall of Fame question, Pieces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., stands as a classic post script from the “Summer of Love” and one of the very best examples of pop psychedelia of the 1960’s. So turn down the lights, turn on the lava lamp, put the needle on the record (or click your iPod), and listen to this groovy album.

Friday, June 24, 2011

“Hejira,” by Joni Mitchell

In 1974, Joni Mitchell was at her commercial peak, placing a #2 album (Court and Spark), containing two of her biggest hits, “Free Man In Paris” and the top ten smash, “Help Me.” Near the end of 1975, she released the eagerly awaited follow-up, the elegant Hissing of Summer Lawns, which Rolling Stone magazine trounced in January of 1976, calling it “insubstantial,” “eccentric,” and “uninspired jazz-rock,” further describing the new Mitchell songs as lacking “harmonic focus,” being “self-indulgent,” “pretentiously chic,” and “boring.” The venomous Rolling Stone review concluded with a description of the last song on the album, “Shadows and Light,” suggesting it sounded “like a long, solemn fart.” It’s important to note, here, that the album would be vindicated with time, lauded by fans and critics over the years as one of Mitchell’s very best efforts.

But while the album was well received in its first few weeks of release, it didn’t contain a “sell-through” hit single, usually propelling album sales, which may be the reason why just four months later, the remarkable Summer Lawns had disappeared from the upper reaches of the pop charts. Stung by the apparent “failure” of Summer Lawns, Mitchell joined friends on a road trip in early 1976 from California to Maine, renting a car and opting to make the return voyage solo: an opportunity to reflect and to recharge. The songs for Hejira were born during that solitary drive across the United States.

The album title, Hejira, is taken from the Arabic word, “hijra,” which means breaking off relations or migrating into honorable exile, a reference to the departure of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca for his criticism of the for-profit, polytheism of the Meccan religion in his time (More information than you needed? Fair enough). In like manner, Mitchell was retreating from the profit-driven music industry to map out her next move and to fortify artistic direction. Mitchell described the genesis of Hejira, “I wrote the album while traveling cross-country by myself, and there is this restless feeling throughout it: the sweet loneliness of solitary travel.” With prominent imagery of smoke-streaked skies, highways, small towns, and snowy landscapes, the album was written solely on guitar. And when recording the songs months later, Mitchell followed suit, using only instruments with which one might be able to travel (i.e., sans piano, drums, etc.).

Mitchell's musical interests were expanding from both the folk and pop scene of the era, toward ambling, jazz-inspired constructs using a fresh range of sounds. Less propelled by stoking the “star maker machinery behind the popular song” and no longer interested in verse-chorus-verse organization, Mitchell strove to build moods with lyrics and sounds. In fact, the album has few (any?) hummable tunes, but like cigarette smoke, Hejira’s songs linger in the air. But in its bicentennial year, America seemed more interested in berating women than celebrating their notable contributions (i.e., “Devil Woman” and “Evil Woman” were two of the year’s biggest hits).