Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Review: Edsel Records' Lovin' Spoonful reissues

No one should argue The Lovin’ Spoonful’s status among the great singles bands of the ‘60s, but some folks might not be aware of what a superior combo they were at 33 1/3. If such a gap exists in your mid-‘60s pop education, get ready to fill it with the British label Edsel Records’ heaping spoonful of reissues.


Unlike a lot of their peers, The Lovin’ Spoonful leaped onto the field sprinting at high speed. Do You Believe in Magic ranks right up there with Mr. Tambourine Man, Love, and Music from Big Pink as one of the ‘60s’ best American debut albums. The Spoonful’s signature blend of Rock & Roll electricity and homemade washboard country funk is already fully realized here. Their original material is tremendous—the title track, “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your mind”, Younger Girl”, “On the Road Again”. Their covers are equally integral to the album’s greatness, which is unusual at a time when original composition had come into vogue resoundingly. Compare The Spoonful’s superb readings of “The Other Side of This life”, “Wild About my Lovin’”, and “You Baby” to The Beatles’ versions of “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” and “Act Naturally”, which stuck out like antiquated sore thumbs on the recent Help!.

By 1966 most bands had finally slowed down the breakneck release schedules more common in the earlier years of Rock & Roll, sweating over masterpieces such as Pet Sounds and Revolver. The Lovin’ Spoonful arrived to the game a bit late and had to make up for lost time. Consequently, ’66 was their most insanely prolific year. The band put out four LPs during the 12-month period between November of ’65 and November of ’66. Released just a few months after Magic, Daydream is not quite as uniformly spectacular, but the well-known songs— the title track, “Didn’t Want to Have to Do It”, “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice”, and “Jug Band Music”—are among the group’s best recordings. Less essential perhaps, “There She Is” is still a damn good rocker, “It’s Not True” is a slinky blueprint for the future classic “Nashville Cats”, and ‘Warm baby” shimmers with John Sebastian’s autoharp scrapes.

Their schedule shows evidence of taking a toll on their least essential record, the soundtrack to Woody Allen’s goofy dubbing experiment What’s Up Tiger Lily, but that’s mostly because the album largely consists of instrumentals and failed to yield a hit. It’s better approached as a soundtrack than a proper Lovin’ Spoonful album, although “Pow”, “Fishin’ Blues”, and “Bespoken” are fine vocal tracks, and the instrumental “Lookin’ to Spy” provides a first glimpse of the haunting “Coconut Grove”. Most of the rest is just OK, but The Spoonful more than made up for this album’s relative disposability with their next one. Rounding out the year is Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful, the band’s masterwork and one of Psychobabble’s picks for the Nineteen Greatest Album as of 1966. The guys perfect their retro sound at a time when futurism was paramount: their down-home country (“Nashville Cats”, “Lovin’ You”), ragtime (“Bes’ Friends”), blues (“Voodoo in My Basement”), pastoral ballads (“Rain on the Roof”), tough rock (“Summer in the City”), and jug band music (“Jug Band Music”) had never been more perfectly crafted or full of life and humor then it is here. As essential as any ‘60s pop.

Another soundtrack followed, although the selections the band supplied to Francis Ford Coppola’s obscure You’re a Big Boy Now are generally more interesting than the Tiger Lily tracks. The instrumentals reveal a distinct Pet Sounds influence and a latent affinity for jazz. The vocal cuts are inconsistent (“Girl, Beautiful Girl”, which appears on the disc twice, suffers from a terrible lyric), but the title track is nice and the yearning “Darling Be Home Soon” might be the band’s finest song.

Eccentric guitarist Zal Yanovsky jumped ship next and was replaced by Jerry Yester, formerly of The Association. John Sebastian would follow soon after, but first he record one last record with The Spoonful. Everything Playing is not a classic on the level of Magic, Daydream, or Hums. The band’s new democratic approach results in a few misfires: bassist Steve Boone is responsible for one poorly sung track and one muzak instrumental that would have fit better on the previous soundtrack; Yester closes the record on a sour note that he should have saved for Farewell, Aldebaran, his 1969 collaboration with wife Judy Henske. Everything Playing still manages to be a good record with its share of first-rate tracks: the powerful “Six O’Clock”, the insightful “Younger Generation”, the lazy blues “Boredom”, and “Money”, which introduced cash-register percussion six years before its Pink Floyd namesake. Drummer Joe Butler’s two contributions are very good too.

Listening to Edsel’s reissues, it’s striking how songs from their final LP could have sat comfortably on their first and vice versa. The Lovin’ Spoonful never freaked out, never felt compelled to answer Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Butler’s “Only Pretty, What a Pity” is as trippy as they ever got), never compromised. As a result, they sound much hipper and fresher today than, say, a band like The Doors, which tried so desperately to be hip and progressive and “meaningful” and ended up embedded inn the amber of the ‘60s’ most naive and pretentious notions of revolution. The Spoonful are more like Chuck Berry: artists with a specific vision who remained true to that vision regardless of contemporary fads, and while they certainly didn’t make the seismic impact Berry did, their influence is immediately detectable in the work of some of their decade’s key artists, from The Beatles to Dylan to The Kinks to The Grateful Dead. They’re a great band masquerading as rag tag minstrels, yet there remains a flavorful variety in their electric jug band rock.

Volume one is a double-disc that includes The Spoonful’s first two albums and a nice pocketful of bonus demos, alternate vocal takes, instrumental backing tracks, and best of all, a psychotic version of “Alley Oop” that proves how hard these laid-back cats could rock. The next two volumes (Tiger Lily/Hums and Big Boy/Everything Playing) are each bunched onto a single disc, which is slightly unfortunate considering you’ll likely spend a lot of time punching the “next” button to skip through soundtrack instrumentals in order to get to more essential tracks, but that’ a pretty minor gripe. A selection of bonus tracks adorns these other volumes too.

These discs sound fantastic. They may seem to lack low-end at first, but then listen to how Sebastian gets on the mic at the end of “Sportin’ Life” or how Zal’s ultra bottom-heavy guitar bursts through the heavenly swoon of “You Baby”. All three dimensions are present and accounted for. The liner notes are smart and informative and interesting for presenting a Brit’s perspective of this very American band. Also valuable is the inclusion of the individual records’ original liner notes. The ones on the Daydream jacket are a scream—easily funnier than anything in What’s Up Tiger Lily?

Get Edsel’s Lovin’ Spoonful twofers at Amazon.com here:

Do You Believe in Magic & Daydream

Whats Up Tiger Lily/Hums of the Lovin Spoonful

Youre a Big Boy Now/Everything Playing
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