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Thursday, February 04, 2016

Odds & Sods #36

Up, Up and Away (1967)
**1/2

While the Fifth Dimension are somewhat known for being a Sunshine pop group – a combination of psychedelic idealism and non-acidic elements of the psychedelic music genre with Motown-esque soul-pop – thanks to hits like "The Age of Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In", their debut is a bit different. The group – as the name suggests, composed of five members, singers Billy Davis Jr., Marilyn McCoo (the two forming the group's "power couple"), Florence LaRue, Lamonte McLemore and Ron Townson – fancied themselves under their own genre title, "Champagne soul", which as the title suggests has plenty of soul, R&B and consequently gospel influence, as well as Broadway show tunes, traditional pop (i.e. Sinatra-crooning) and light opera. Clearly this was a more pretentious musical model to base oneself on, and while it's definitely not the main reason I look down on their first LP compared to their later, more popular ones, it would help if the material was more consistent.

Unfortunately, the Broadway and light opera influence was a bit stronger than the rest, so there's a lot of schlocky material on the record. Out of the 11 songs, there are five ballads, four of which are pretty difficult to tolerate, either being excessively melodramatic (the pompous pseudo-opera, mostly a cappella closer "Poor Side of Town", which at least picks up steam a bit with a brief stab at brass-based fanfare), on one hand, or too lightweight and insubstantial (a cover of Tim Hardin's "Misty Roses", no longer a light piece of folk-pop but a light piece of string-based fluff), on the other hand, with at least one track stylistically in between ("Rosecrans Blvd.", with the bizarrely contrasting overdramatic verses/middle eighth and unconvinced, not to mention unconvincing, refrain), and all of which are pretty poor in overall melodic content. At least two of these are tolerable for a bit longer, either because they have more memorable melodies ("Which Way to Nowhere", with a pleasant rising/falling set of melodies/harmonies), or simply because the vocal performance is more convincing ("Never Gonna Be the Same", a minor highlight because Marilyn McCoo takes lead vocals rather than her future husband, who has yet to find his convincing vocals as on their biggest hit, and also because the intro has an interesting psychedelic keyboard twang), but that's not much of a consolation.

What is a consolation is that the more up-tempo material is markedly better. I won't be the first to note this – and I believe in the review down at AllMusic Guide they used this exact comparison – but their band's hits or more hit-worthy (composition-wise) material is very much like an African-American parallel to the Mamas & the Papas; it not only helps that the Wrecking Crew, the expert team of session musicians who worked for the Mamas & the Papas (and the Beach Boys), play on here to make the comparison complete, but they even cover the Mamas & the Papas' debut single "Go Where You Wanna Go". Ironically, this is one of the more disappointing up-tempo numbers on here, simply because it pales in comparison to the original without adding anything new to it. The original had you chasing after both the male and female vocal patterns twisting and turning their way around each other, whereas the harmonies here, while solid and professional, are just that: solid and professional, but not mindblowing or anything.

One cover that comes off as a bit of a rewrite of that one, the LP's second track, "Another Day, Another Heartache", fairs better in their hands. It helps that it's written by Steve Barri and P.F. Sloan, whose songwriting isn't exclusively created to need such brilliantly executed harmonies, which is better for this group's own harmonizing style. At the very least, they sound more at ease with this song, and it has a number of decent hooks from verse to chorus, with the vocalists trading places as necessary, and I guess I should mention one aspect of the instrumental track, the bizarre, "collapsing" Indian music vibe (muddy sitars, disjointed violin, booming Hal Blaine drum fills) of the intro and instrumental interlude; the exact purpose it serves in context evades me, but it sounds cool anyways. So I guess this one's a minor highlight.

One thing of note is that the majority of the material is penned by one Jimmy Webb, who would continue to write songs for the group (or the group/their management continued to pick bucket-loads of his paid-for-hire songwriting talents, hell if I know the difference) later on. Aside from penning the two more tolerable ballads, two of the mediocre ones (the ones that aren't the LP's closer) and one more minor treat – a tune called "Pattern People", which true to its word is very patterned rhythmically, with multiple sections repeating in sequence and tight, playful harmonies in the refrain backed by what sounds like an old metronome – Webb is also responsible for the title track, the album's biggest hit and the band's first hit (peaking at no. 1, too!). It's a well-deserved one, since the Wrecking Crew and the Fifth Dimension give it just the right arrangement given its title: swift strings, breathy flutes, soothing brass and playful classical guitar fills on the musical side, and harmonies that go from light and airy to strong and soaring on the vocal side.

The only other outside songwriter to contribute more than one track, one Willie Hutch, only pens two, with the weaker one being decent ("Learn How to Fly", another speedy Mamas & Papas-esque popper, with the vocals in an accurate flurry), and the stronger one being a strong contender to the title track is the album's best. "California My Way" is similar to other late '60s songs about that state or at least one of its major cities (usually San Francisco), in that it's slightly anthemic, except the hippie idealism isn't met with a psychedelic or hippie-folk arrangement, but an equally delightful soul-pop arrangement, with rapid mandolin-esque guitar picking, warm French (or English) horns and the thick harmonies in the refrain, spinning harmonies and brass in the interludes, and pleasant, catchy solo vocal spots in the verses.

The grade I give this album shouldn't come as too big a surprise: there's only two major highlights, a couple of minor ones, and a bunch of mediocre tracks. However, I should give the three bonus tracks their due. They clearly focus on the band's Motown influence, sounding like something that could have been recorded by one of that label's major stars circa late '65-mid '66, and they help give the album a better closing impression than the lackluster closer. My favorite of these is another Hutch tune, "Train Keep On Movin'", with a harmonica part that, as the title suggests, chugs along nicely, and the group's silly harmonies imitating the choo-chooing of a locomotive are good-natured fun too. That doesn't discredit the other two, one written and one co-written by a certain W.M. Hutchinson (Hutch's real name?); "I'll Be Loving You Forever" has a fine melody that occasionally sounds like a traditional Jewish melody, which somehow fits the Motown-esque backing quite nicely, and both that one and "Too Poor to Die" have Billy Davis Jr.'s best vocals, far closer to how I prefer him to sound than how he does on the ballads, with Levi Stubbs-esque barking out the lyrics that are particularly convincing. They don't really boost the album's grade (a "strong" **1/2 isn't markedly better than a "weak" **1/2), and anything less than a *** is rarely something to seek out, but the album's big hit, "California My Way" and the bonus tracks are among the group's more interesting tunes.

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