Monday, 13 April 2009
The Mamas and Papas "If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears" (1966) (News, Views and Music 27)
“Got a feelin’ that you’re playing some games with me babe, got a feelin’ that you been untrue…”
The Mamas And Papas “If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears”
There’s a certain kind of bittersweet melancholy that’s the sweetest sound you’ve ever heard. Ray Davies swore by it, Brian Wilson has had it for most of his working life, the Beatles leaned on it heavily throughout the 60s and even the most unlikely bands like the Who and Rolling Stones gave us the melancholia of ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ and ‘Lady Jane’ from time to time. John Phillips though, the man whose composer’s instincts dominate this record, was a living breathing testament to how to make bittersweet melancholy sound fabulous and there’s a rarely a song of his that isn’t bittersweet and gorgeous. Even the band’s best known songs, ‘Monday Monday’ and ‘California Dreamin’- which are incidentally both from this album - are lyrically depressing cries from the heart stuck together with power pop hooks and harmonies that suggest that somehow despite the problems the world’s going to be just fine anyway.
In a (very) wide generalisation, most debut albums are happy, energetic, eager-to-please collections of danceable grooves that make you feel good – despite the rush you get when the harmonies kick in, the Mamas and Papas’ debut is one of the most melancholy ever made. And, curiously, it’s still by far and away their happiest album despite the obvious sadness oozing at the seams. That curious dichotomy is all over this album - one minute the band is all agreed that ‘to go where you want to go’ is the best way for happy healthy human beings to be – the next we’re being urged ‘you don’t understand’. One minute Mama Cass is telling us she’s part of ‘the in crowd’ – the next she’s modulating into a minor key to tell us that ‘you ain’t been nowhere till you’ve been in the in crowd’, making us wonder if her character actually sounds more desperate than victorious. We’re California Dreamin’ on this album alright, thanks to some of the most glorious harmonic outbursts on record – but on such a cold and biting winter’s day.
Maybe all that melancholy explains why this hippiest of bands wasn’t the happiest of bands, despite the wholesome image they always liked to project. Just like CSNY the Mamas and Papas spoke out about love and harmony and peace in the world in every note and phrase of their music and it wasn’t a ‘front either’ – both bands believed in a hippy utopia with every pore in their bodies (even if none of them were too sure how to get there). And, just like CSNY, all four then bickered endlessly between themselves about how best to show that utopia on record, causing ructions that killed off the band completely in just three short years and to these ears diluted their delightfully happy harmonies as early as the second album. Records two to four all have their shining moments (Phillips’ tale of betrayal ‘No Salt On Her Tail’ and his glorious tale of peace ‘Through My Window’ both deserve better recognition, being among the best songs the Mamas and Papas ever did) but this album’s mix of shimmering fragile sadness and aggressive fully-powered harmonies is the most consistent and pioneering of the quartet’s full albums. It’s also the only one where you can tell the whole band really are enjoying each other’s company – for the record, love triangles don’t get any more confusing than the one in this band and its all going to kick off sometime around 1967, shortly after this record (John had married Michelle who fell in love with Denny, only to find a rival for his affections in Mama Cass, etc…what is this, Creeque Alley Coronation Street?!)
Onto the music. I’d love to be different to very other reviewer under the planet and focus on a different ‘best song’ than ‘California Dreamin’ but, well, every time I try and write about some other song I feel this majestic single pounding at my ear-drums so I’m going to have to admit defeat and write about it. ‘California Dreamin’ is a perfectly written, perfectly sung representative of everything the Mamas and Papas were about. The words are quite genuine (the Phillips’ really were getting fed up with their self-imposed exile on the Virgin Islands when they wrote this song together and the ‘church’ the homesick pair step inside is actually St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, a journey they took because – being California citrizens – they hadn’t quite realised how cold it got in other parts of America), but they’re dressed up to mean something to all of us. It’s Homeward Bound, basically, but with the song’s narrators even further off the beaten track than Paul Simon stuck at
Widnes railway station, lost in a fog of their own making. The dry repetitive rhythms crackle like the Winter air, the unusual but highly effective choice of a flute solo highlights the icicles hanging in the air and there, just about audible in the background, are those gorgeous sunny harmonies that are close enough to believe in but too far away to embrace. By the end of the song, we’ve all got our bags packed for our own sunny tranquillity of . In short, this is catchy but deep pop at it’s best and the best Califorbnia-related song that Brian Wilson didn’t write. California
‘Monday, Monday’ is the other well known song here, the follow up single that again becomes all things to all men and is equally full of clever lyrical rhymes and glowing harmonies, with all four band members on form. We haven’t said much about Michelle or Denny yet so here goes – Michelle’s little girl innocence riding over the top of John Phillips’ melancholy wave is extraordinary, as is Denny Docherty’s three dimensional vocal of heartbreak going on over the top of it. Personally, though, I always get a bit lost in this song – one minute the narrator’s girl is there and he’s happy (‘…that Monday evening you would still be here with me’) and the next he’s down in the dumps. Well, that’s the trouble with melancholy pop I suppose – even the writer gets so lost in his own music that he can’t decide what to write any more. Whatever the real message of the song, it’s the production that makes this song work so well, with the singers soaring off into infinity – and the near-end section where the band go into those silky four-part harmonies only to drop back down to the cold, dry hard bed of the verse melody is a jaw-dropping lesson in contrasts.
‘Straight Shooter’ is the band’s best rocker, so good in fact that it was needlessly recycled for the far inferior ‘Somebody Groovy’ on this same album (only the lyrics differ – the melody is identical!) In truth, the lyrics of neither song have much to tell us; John Phillips seems to be convinced that he’s telling us about a straightforward sort of character who speaks the truth at all costs – but we already know (and learn further during the complex melodies intertwined throughout this song) what a deep and multi-layered character John Phillips was so the effect doesn’t quite work, even in Denny’s capable hands. The riff is classic though, sounding like something Roger McGuinn would have earned a lifetime of kudos for writing, and the band’s harmonies over the top are some of their best on record.
Best of all for me, though, is the gossamer light ballad ‘Got A Feelin’, the first song of many built on the theme of betrayal (irony of ironies – this is John Phillips raising his first doubts about wife Michelle’s relationship with Denny, a theme that’s going to dominate the next two Mamas and Papas records, and giving it to Michelle and Denny to sing, now wonder ‘the joke’s on you’). This song is one long sigh, building up from nothing to the point where it becomes overpowering – and the masterpiece of all is that this ever-moving dance between the two singers is set to the beat of a ticking clock, marking down the time for a showdown between the three. The tune to this song is simply one of the best written by anybody anywhere, soaring into the ether before bumping back to Earth. In typical Mamas and Papas contrasts both singers sound so sweet and innocent on this, with some of their best ever harmony work, but what they’re saying is actually quite nasty and challenging. The dream-like state of the production is another touch of class, with everything in this song not quite right, adding to the confused state of the narrator’s mind.
On the down side, John Phillips isn’t quite up to writing everything himself yet – despite the general public idea of Phillips as the ‘domineering one’ he never does quite manage to write a whole album himself till his one and only solo LP. And, to be frank, none of the other writers chosen for this record is quite up his standard – at least, not the way the Mamas and papas do them. Even the Beatles’ ‘I Call Your Name’ sounds like the filler it is in this rendition, being one of Lennon’s earliest songs hauled out of the writing dustbin to fill up the ‘Long Tall Sally’ EP. The Beatles got away with the faults in the song by giving it such a sterling arrangement – a touch of reggae, a hint of rock and otherwise pop bliss. The Mamas and Papas want the song to sound like vaudeville. Slowing the tempo merely shows how poor the melody is. Getting Mama Cass to waste her delightful vocals on this song more or less solo at the beginning merely shows up how poor the words are. Only for the chorus does the band wake up but, alas, its for just a few seconds at a time before we’re back to the snail’s pace again.
‘Do You Wanna Dance?’ is another curio, an energetic early 60s standard that has little about it to recommend except it’s energy, slowed down to another crawl. The Beach Boys didn’t seem to comprehend this song’s confusing lyrics either when they recorded it for ‘Beach Boys Today’, but at least they turned in a powerful performance that leapt from the speakers. I really hate these old standard vaudevillian arrangements the Mamas and Papas kept insisting on doing (it gets worse on later LPs, what with Shirley Temple and Rodgers and Hart covers and all), as they use none of the band’s strengths and show up lots of weaknesses that just aren’t there on Phillips’ own songs.
‘The In Crowd’ is another curious cover choice, although at least the arrangement works well on this one, with Michelle dominating the background harmonies and Cass going at the song for all she’s worth. No, the fault is with the song itself – too many awkward lyrical phrases that don’t quite fit the melody and so have to get changed tin order to scan (‘the share is always the biggest a-m-o-unt’). And what is with the moral of this song? ‘You ain’t been nowhere until you’ve fit in the ‘in crowd?’ Well, hang on a minute, the song doesn’t actually give me any reason to want to join any ‘in’ crowd – other than the fact that I’ll feel left out of it if I don’t join. Phillips is notable by his absence from his one – a solitary outsider spirit if ever there was one and somehow, despite the other three’s best attempts, this song falls flat without his input. Far from being ‘special’ joining the ‘in’ crowd seems to rob you of originality if this song is anything to go by. A rotten misfire on an otherwise superlative record. Your best bet is to skip it and go back to Phillips’ material – now there’s a sound for sore ears. Overall rating: ♫♫♫♫♫♫♫ (7/10).