Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Association: Birthday

There are a number of LPs, not a long list, of pop, jazz, funk & soundtrack records I've considered very underrated. One was the Fifth Dimension / Jimmy Webb collaboration Magic Garden. That always had fans & came to be generally regarded as a great pop record. Another LP, while not quite on the high plane of Magic Garden, is Birthday by The Association, a group not thought of as cool or hip in any way. Everyone knows the hits "Time for Living" & the awesome "Everything That Touches You" from Birthday. I gave it 4 of 5 stars at Amazon because a couple of songs don't cut it for me, one them titled "Rose Petals, Incense, & a Kitten," yuck, there's no excuse for that.
Classic California Pop. Perhaps the group's best produced & most coherent - if not strongest - LP, with few serious songwriting lapses as each of members jockey'd for center stage. The cover art & Bones Howe's production reached out to a potential potheads-with-headphones audience, to no avail. Like a similarly virtuoso vocal group, Free Design, there's some strange goings on beneath even the wimpiest surfaces. Unless you're a fan-atic collector of the Association, skip this & pick up "Just The Right Sound; The Association Anthology," a pricey but worthwhile two-CD set that incorporates the better half of "Birthday". It's like doing doob at Disneyland.
Any review posted at Amazon not completely uncritical of a record or book receives few "Helpful" votes. I'm only trying to help casual fans of the group get all the good singles & some album tracks. As an album, Birthday is so dependent on it's stereo separation - the multi-tracked voices coming from left, right & places in between - that I fail to understand why anyone would want a "Deluxe Mono Edition" just because there were decent mono mixes. There was dissension between group & producer Howe, who wanted hit singles, & between group members. Several wanted to push in a more "experimental" direction, & there are unusual songs on all the earlier Association albums. In 1968, perfectly fine pop groups desperately wanted to be hip. But the group apparently couldn't hear how extraordinarily complex & beautiful its studio vocal harmonies had become. There was nothing like them on radio, not even from The Beach Boys, who had wandered too far from their strengths & foundered on the shoals of experiment with the unfinished Smile project. "Come On In" opens the album, "Barefoot Gentleman" begins the vinyl side 2.

The Association recorded many good songs after Birthday, but didn't factor much on the charts, & with no crystal ball they couldn't have foreseen years of popularity & profit in the adult-oriented radio market that emerged in the '70s & played artists from CSN&Y to The Spinners to Barbra Streisand to Fleetwood Mac, & gave The Beach Boys a couple more hits.

(For me, a truly underrated album is one that is or should be generally available - usually a major label, doesn't have an intense cult following, & could be appreciated by variety of listeners. There are very few of these left to be rediscovered in pop & rock, & most are fairly critiqued at All Music.)

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