Monday, May 8, 2017

Review: Edsel Records' Deluxe Turtles Reissues

Although they scooped up a bundle of smash 45s such as “Elenore,” “You Showed Me”, “It Ain’t Me Babe”, and the deathless “Happy Together”, The Turtles never quite garnered the reputation for being a great album group as peers such as The Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel, and The Monkees did. That’s too bad because The Turtles’ albums tended to be as effervescent, memorable, and weird as their singles. The LPs also really throw a spotlight on the odd ways a group most noted for their good-timey pop tunes evolved.

The 1965 debut, It Ain’t Me Babe, finds the L.A. sextet in total folk-rock mode, covering Dylan with almost as much enthusiasm as The Byrds did on their debut. The Turtles also shred through a couple of bitter treats by Dylan-aspirer P.F. Sloan and thoughtful originals by their own Howard Kaylan, such as “Wanderin’ Kind” and “Let the Cold Winds Blow”. While there are none of the gum drops that would soon come tumbling out of The Turtles’ shells, a jaunty version of “Your Maw Said You Cried” and the band’s decision to cover a tune by Tin Pan Alley team Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil is an early clue that times would soon be changin’ for the less politicized.

Nevertheless, 1966’s You Baby/Let Me Be is still dominated by “Let Me Be” brooding rather than “You Baby” sugariness, offering another slew of withering folk rock, such as Kaylan’s “House of the Rising Sun”-esque “House of Pain” and Highway 61-esque “Pall Bearing, Ball Bearing World”. Even the love songs are pretty moody, and the upbeat “Flyin’ High” and the Kinky “Almost There” bookend the album with a fanged snarl. A version of Bob Lind’s “Down in Suburbia”, however, matches cute social commentary with a fun and funky Latin clatter, hinting at the clever strangeness to come.

Then came The Turtles’ breakthrough year, 1967, and the hits that really defined their career. “Happy Together” and “Me About You” are too moody to really categorize as bubblegum, but “She’d Rather Be with Me”, “Guide for the Married Man”, “Makin’ My Mind Up”, and “Person without a Care” deliver the Bazooka Joe goods in the best way. Happy Together is also where The Turtles started exploring their inner zany for good (“The Walking Song”) and ill (the unlistenable “Rugs of Woods and Flowers”).

Produced by one-time Turtle Chip Douglas, 1968’s The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands makes use of a concept that allows the band to indulge every idiosyncratic side of their personality with complete abandon. The album basically makes good on the supposed concept beneath Sgt. Pepper’s: The Turtles pretend to be a different band on each track, which allows them to show off how well they could mock soul combos (“The Battle of the Bands”), psych groups (“The Last Thing I Remember”), corny C&W pickers (“Too Much Heartsick Feeling”), surf bands (“Surfer Dan”), jazz fusionists (“Food”), Booker T. & The MG’s (“Buzz Saw”), errr…world music? (“I’m Chief Kamanawanalea”), and themselves (“Elenore”). A rare flash of sincerity called “Earth Anthem” reveals that the Turtles still cared about their world, could create work of tremendous beauty, and were rather prescient in their ability to foresee the coming environmental movement of the seventies. Anyone baffled by how the guys who sang “Happy Together” ended up working with Frank Zappa should listen to Battle of the Bands pronto.

Unlike The Turtles’ previous hit-packed albums, Turtle Soup failed to spawn a significant single. This is significant because it also marks The Turtles’ complete maturation as an album group. Blame Ray Davies, whom the band hired to produce in the vein of The Kinks’ raucous early singles. However, Davies had just completed his masterpiece, the textured and sensitive Village Green Preservation Society, and decided to continue with that approach while also taking advantage of resources available to a band that sold a lot more records in 1968 than The Kinks did. The results were such Wagnerian production feats as “Love in the City” and “How You Loved Me”, as well as the more elegantly orchestrated “John and Julie”. Relatively simple productions, such as the ’66-style jangle of “She Always Leaves Me Laughing”, the stripped down boogie of “Hot Little Hands”, and the Happy Together-revisited arrangement of “You Don’t Have to Walk in the Rain” were just as effective. As far as I’m concerned, Turtle Soup is not just the best Turtles album but also one of the very best of 1969, and I’d sooner spin it than such acknowledged classics of that year as Led Zeppelin’s debut, Let It Bleed, and The Kinks’ own Arthur.

If you’ve yet to discover the hidden wonders of Turtle Soup and the rest of The Turtles’ long-playing catalog, you’d do no better than starting with Edsel’s new reissue series. Utilizing Bill Inglot’s same warm and detailed remasters that graced Manifesto’s Complete Original Album Collection released in the U.S. last year, Edsel’s new individual releases split the mono and stereo mixes of the first three albums between two discs each (dont bother popping in the stereo It Ain’t Me Babe disc unless you have a high tolerance for vocals hard panned to the left and instruments hard panned to the right).  The second discs of Battle of the Bands, Turtle Soup, and the collection of 1966 outtakes Wooden Head load up on stereo mixes of non-album singles (the mono originals were collected on last year’s superb All the Singles), Turtle Soup demos, some fabulous psychedelic outtakes cut around the same time as Sound Asleep, and a fascinating and characteristically unsettling half-dozen Jerry Yester productions recorded for the band’s scrapped 1970 LP to be titled Shell Shock (judging from these tracks, it would have been a great record). The nice digipak packaging and Andrew Sandoval’s short but sweet liner notes help give these excellent albums the respect they should have been receiving for the past fifty years.
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