Close To Perfection
What's the best record label around at the moment? For me, it's a no-brainer, because New York based Sundazed leaves all others standing in the dust. Naturally I would say this, as Sundazed is the home of all things Soft Pop, and as friends know, there has been little else playing on the stereo around these attic parts recently. It's so sympathetic to the times, after all: perfectly suited for both sunshining afternoons and evenings after days when the clouds have barely lifted above the treetops; reflecting or raising moods accordingly. I love it too because it's a great way of making some kind of sense of how time doesn't matter anymore. I feel as excited, not to mention fevered, listening to the likes of The Cyrkle, Wendy and Bonnie, Ballroom, Millennium et al as I've ever done from anything. Which includes, well, everything. From Felt to the Go-Betweens to Fire Engines to Ornette Coleman to Photek to Gang Starr to... well, you get the picture.
I could spend hours browsing through the Sundazed catalogue on their great website, and could spend hundreds, or more likely thousands of pounds snapping up all their releases. I dare say my bank manager would have something to say about that though. The spending I mean. Not the browsing. I don't imagine she'd care about that, not unless she too delights in the sounds of The Yellow Ballon... My recent purchases on the Sundazed front indeed include that collection. Actually I only picked up the Yellow Balloon album when I bought the triple Ballroom/Millennium Magic Time set on one of those Amazon recommendations, and I'm really glad it popped (excuse the pun) up. Because The Yellow Balloon is a tremendous summer Pop sensation in the vein of the finest Californian '60s surf/beat Pop like the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean. Which isn't really surprising, since song-writer Gary Zekely was one of the core of songwriters who gave birth to and drove the whole West Coast sound in the early '60s. His songs were always terrific, and the material on The Yellow Balloon is almost flawless. It's a steady stream of scorching harmonies and melodies; 'How can I Be Down', 'Baby Baby It's You', 'Follow The Sunshine', 'Good Feelin' Time', 'Yellow Balloon'... all awesome tunes that wander into your head and set up camp. Imagine the sound of The Yellow Balloon as soundtrack to Gidget; a song like 'Springtime Girl' is the sound of Sally Field's smile, and incidentally, why no DVD's of Gidget available these days? That's a tragedy. And speaking of TV shows, the drummer for the Yellow Balloon was actor Don Grady (notably from My Two Dads), who would play shows in a wig and fake moustache under the pseudonym of Luke. There are also two tracks from Grady's (earlier) time with the Windupwatchband included here.
Moving on, the eponymous Montage album from 1969 is flawed. At least, that's the view of Mike Brown, legendary Left Banke leading light, who was involved in co-writing, producing, playing keyboards and arranging vocals on this one-off album. Brown viewed the Montage album as a stepping stone from his Left Banke days to the sounds he went on to make with the likes of The Stories, but really it's a great collection of songs in its own right, and is essential for anyone who loves the Left Banke. The sound is typical Left Banke, being great off-centre Pop, utilising classical angles with Rock/Pop tangents not unlike those made many years later by New Zealands' Verlaines. Didn't they call it 'Baroque Pop' at the time? Whatever, the Montage album has a fine classical-psychedelia angle going on in songs like 'Men Are Building Sand' and 'Tinsel and Ivy', whilst others simply plough a fine Pop furrow. Like the fantastic single 'Desiree' (actually also a late Left Banke single, and re-released in this new form perhaps because Brown was disappointed that the LB version peaked at 98 in the US charts - the Montage version ironically not even performing that well) and album opener 'I Shall Call Her Mary' which was allegedly a song about Shangri-La Mary Weiss, there being few less fitting subjects for tributes, after all. And on the subject of the Shangri-Las, let's just take a moment to remember that there's a classic Shangri-Las collection available at the moment on the Cherry Red run RPM label. Myrmidons of Melodrama makes for a welcome change from streams of shoddily packaged 'best-of' compilations that have appeared down the years. The CD even features four marvellous radio slots, where the girls give tips on make-up and dating etiquette. Priceless.
Back to Sundazed though, for the Cyrkle, whose Red Rubber Ball CD has been playing a lot this weekend. The title track has been one of the songs bouncing around my head as I've been riding my bike around the Devon lanes, and that's no surprise because it's an infectious tune as no doubt all of you know. One of several Paul Simon/Bruce Woodley (of The Seekers) penned tunes on the album, 'Red Rubber Ball' is one of those bona-fide classic Pop singles that do everything you want them to do exactly when you want them to do it. And then stick in your head forever. Or at least until the next one comes along. Like the equally wonderful 'Turn Down Day' with those amazing lines 'it's a turn down day, and I dig it.' I kid you not. 'And I dig it'. I miss that kind of language in Pop. 'Sorted', 'Bangin', or whatever the hell they say these days (what do Metal Kids say? Do Metal kids say anything that isn't an unintelligible mumble?). When was the last time anyone used the words 'dig it' in Pop? Was it the Mock Turtles' 'Can You Dig It?' Perhaps. You know the Mock Turtles did a cover version of the Kinks' 'Big Sky' once. It was passable.
The Cyrkle were more than passable, although some of the tracks on the Red Rubber Ball are tunes to skip; notably 'Big Little Woman' is dull in lyrical and sonic content, whilst I really can do without another version of 'Bony Moronie'. Apparently, whilst on the Beatles 1966 US tour, on which the Cyrkel were openers, when asked if he liked the Cyrkle's album Paul McCartney complimented the band on their 'upside down arrangement' of this song. Just goes to show that McCartney always did have no clue. How he could have picked up on that over priceless gems like 'Cloudy' (another lovely Paul Simon/Bruce Woodley tune) or the Dawes/Danneman original 'How Can I Leave Her' which is all classic minor chord melancholia beggars belief.
Also included on the Sundazed reissue are a clutch of unreleased tracks, including a peach of a demo version of the aforementioned 'How Can I Leave Her' and a collection of four 45's recorded in 1967. Among these is the overlooked classic 'We Had A Good Thing Goin''. Written by the Brill Building team of Neil Sedaka and Howie Greenfield, 'Good Thing Goin'' is full of weirdly warbling backwards tapes, speeded vocals and soaring melodies and harmonies. Better still though is the wonderful 'Reading Her Paper'. A perfect snapshot of those fleeting moments on buses and trains where faces become instant, abstract obsessions that imprint forever, this song is like some glorious pre-cursor to the Bachelor Pad's 'Girl of Your Dreams'. Or, because time is all warped of course, for me it's actually more like a younger sibling, The Bachelor Pad's song being one of my memories fifteen years in the past. Whereas The Cyrkle are, for me, distinctly 2002.
Best of recent Sundazed purchases though is a forgotten classic from 1969 by Wendy and Bonnie. Genesis was rightly pointed out by Stereolab's Tim Gane as a lost gem a few years ago, and Mike Alway similarly picked up on its genius, sticking three cover versions of songs from it on his Songs From The Jet Set compilations in the '90s. More recently, Bob Stanley also picked it out in his recent Mojo article on great lost classics of the Soft Pop scene. Originally released on the Skye label, Genesis was an oddity not least because it was the only 'rock' album on a Jazz label. This fact, though, was a major factor in the album being so fantastic. Aside from the core of the fabulous Flower sisters' voices (that really was their name, incidentally, and not some fatuous hippy affectation) the musicians on the album were all top-flight session players; Jim Keltner on drums, Mike Melvoin and Michael Lang on Hammond and piano, Randy Cierly on bass, and a young Larry Carlton on guitar. All of it arranged superbly by Gary McFarland, who had already worked with the likes of Gerry Mulligan, Bill Evans and Stan Getz. No surprise then, that Genesis sounded out of this world. Just as it was being promoted, however, Skye went bust, and the album fell into the hinterland of forgotten albums. It was a crushing blow for the young sisters, and deprived us of what surely would have been a string of amazing records. The four demo cuts of songs that might have been on a second album included on this CD reissue are evidence, if its evidence you really need (but really all you need to do is to trust your gut and your imagination). The sisters cropped up on a couple of Cal Tjader albums in the '70s, and Bonnie passed up a chance to join the Bangles in the '80s, but that's about the whole story. Except to say maybe that in Genesis Wendy and Bonnie made the kind of Jazz inflected Folk-Soul-Pop that the likes of Weekend, Working Week, Sunset Gun (and it's the Rutkowski sisters that Wendy and Bonnie most remind me of) or Everything But The Girl in their Eden-era would later hint at, although no-one could claim to have reached the same dizzy heights. This album is about as close to perfection as you can get.
Which pretty much sums up the whole Sundazed label.
© Alistair Fitchett 2002