The Youngbloods – Elephant Mountain

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Known primarily as a folk rock group, The Youngbloods branch out with their third album. Released in 1969 on RCA Records, Elephant Mountain shows dramatic growth from the band’s earlier efforts. Between the second and third album, Jerry Corbit, the lead guitarist and songwriter, departed the band, leaving Jesse Colin Young to take the reins as de facto leader. This personnel change combined with the physical move from New York City to Marin County, CA, led to a change in direction for The Youngbloods. Elephant Mountain incorporates a variety of sounds and styles into the band’s traditional repertoire. The Youngbloods’s folk and jug band roots are complemented with edgy blues guitar riffs, jazz-infused improvisational instrumentals and pop rock harmonies. For example, the opening riff of “Sham” is something that sounds like it could come straight off a hard blues rock album. While the song is remarkably different from most of their earlier material, it seems to fit nicely with this new identity. Also building on this new identity is the song “Smug.” This song is a psychedelic pop song that seems to come directly from the streets of 1960s San Francisco. Despite the somber title and subject matter, the song sounds happy and idyllic and uses vocal studio effects common with this bubblegum pop-style of music. Even on earlier albums, it was evident that these musicians were talented instrumentalists, but on Elephant Mountain they really show their colors. There are several instrumental songs including “On Sir Francis Drake” and “Trillium” that demonstrate the band’s jazz-infused improvisational skills. “On Sir Francis Drake” in particular seems to allow each band member room to experiment and grow, making for an extremely groovy jazz rock song that no one would expect from a folk rock group born in Greenwich Village. For those that might be thinking that The Youngbloods seem to have lost touch with their folksy roots––do not fear. The Youngbloods perform a variety of very solid tunes that would be much more likely to attract fans of their traditional music. The opening song on the album, “Darkness, Darkness” is a solid folk/bluegrass number written by Jesse Colin Young that features Charlie Daniels (of The Charlie Daniels Band fame) on the fiddle. In addition to playing fiddle on “Darkness, Darkness,” Charlie Daniels also produced this album, so there are plenty of folk/country/bluegrass tones throughout the album. “Darkness, Darkness” is particularly somber, but the style and musicianship makes for a phenomenal opening track. “Rain Song” and “Black Mountain Breakdown” are also songs that will appeal to the more folk-loving fans of The Youngbloods. “Rain Song” actually still features Jerry Corbit, as it was recorded before he left the band. Thus, the song is not unlike much of the band’s earlier works. Although the album features a lot of growth and development, it is not so far from the band’s roots as to upset fans of previous albums. The album starts with a nice layer of folk rock and then incorporates these new sounds and styles throughout the album. Old fans and new alike will find something to enjoy, although given the variety of styles, it is likely that each listener may find one or two songs they don’t prefer. When all is said and done, Elephant Mountain is a solid third album, worthy of picking up at your next visit to the record store.  B+

The Lemon Pipers – Green Tambourine

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Unfortunately, the story of the Lemon Pipers and their battle for control with their record company was all too common in the 60s. Soon after being signed to Buddah Records, the band was pushed into the bubblegum pop genre by their label despite their objections. The label hired Paul Leka and Shelley Pinz to write some songs for the band, one of which would go on to be the Lemon Piper’s most popular tune, “Green Tambourine.” After “Green Tambourine” was successfully released as a pre-album single, the label further pushed the band to record bubblegum/psychedelic pop material. The band however, was much more interested in rock ‘n’ roll. Thus, Green Tambourine the band’s debut album, released in 1968, was a compromise––half of the songs are pop-oriented, label pleasers, whereas the other half are rock-based songs written by the band members themselves. The resulting album is an eclectic mix of genres and subgenres that actually works surprisingly well together. Although the band was quite reluctant to record the songs the label had written for them, these songs are surprisingly good. “Green Tambourine” was obviously the most successful song on the album, but just because it did well on the charts, does not mean that it is overly poppy or simplistic. It has a strong melody with just enough psychedelic rock influence to keep it from being a cookie cutter bubblegum song. “Shoeshine Boy” and “The Shoemaker of Leatherwear Square” are also surprisingly good songs written by Leka and Pinz. Both songs are concept songs that edge more towards psychedelic rock than pop, but contain elements of both. The only two songs that are really pop-heavy are “Rice is Nice” and “Blueberry Blue,” but even these two songs have enough interesting arrangements and psychedelic sounds to maintain the band’s credibility. When the Lemon Pipers were allowed to write their own material, they really showed their wide range and eclectic tastes. For example, “Ask Me If I Care” has strong folk-rock influences, sounding like something The Hollies may have produced. On the other hand, “Straglin’ Behind” and “Fifty Year Void” are blues-rock numbers with psychedelic influences. “Fifty Year Void” especially has that hard driving rhythm common in blues songs. The song that really tops the album is the nine-minute psychedelic trip, “Through With You.” This song is adventurous and bold, experimenting with unusual arrangements and different psychedelic sound effects. This song alone is reason enough to buy the album. Despite their reluctance to record material that was essentially forced upon them, The Lemon Pipers were able to produce an exciting and diverse album, which remains an essential album for all enthusiasts of 60s psychedelic music. Unfortunately the Lemon Pipers would get so fed up with their label telling them what to record that they would leave the music industry entirely. They broke up after just one more record (Jungle Marmalade), and several of them would never be involved in the music industry on a professional level again.  A

The Lettermen – Spring!

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Although spring usually indicates growth, freshness and rebirth, Spring! is anything but fresh. Released in 1967 on Capitol Records, this album is unfortunately, little more than more of the same 60s soft pop from The Lettermen. The Lettermen carved a name for themselves in the early 60s with their handsome looks and smooth harmonization; however, by the late 60s their popularity was beginning to wane and they were in need of a fresh approach. Unfortunately, instead of putting their talents together and coming up with some original material, the boys borrowed hits from the charts here and there, hoping to record something that could crack into the top 100. Despite their best intentions none of the songs took off–most were nothing more than mediocre covers of pop singles. For example, their cover of “Happy Together” is a solid tune, but it’s almost indistinguishable from the original version released by The Turtles just a few months earlier. The “5” Royales’s hit “Dedicated to the One I Love” is also featured on this album despite the fact that a cover version by The Mamas and the Papas had already charted a few months before. The one redeeming song on the album is the psychedelic pop song “Mr. Sun.” It draws heavy influences from The Beatles’s crossover into the psychedelic genre, although it still remains unique and fun. Despite being a welcome relief from the monotony of mediocre covers, “Mr. Sun” is not enough to prop up the entire album. Perhaps if The Lettermen had focused more on quality rather than quantity (this was their 14th album over a six-year period), they could have produced stronger albums and stayed together longer. (One of the three boys, Bob Engemann, would sell his interest in the group shortly after this album’s release, although The Lettermen name still lives on today after many, many lineup changes.) The only reason to pick up this album is for “Mr. Sun,” but if you can find it on a 45 somewhere, you’re better off going that route.  D

The Cowsills – The Cowsills in Concert

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The one thing anyone knows about The Cowsills is that the family band was the basis for the popular TV show The Partridge Family, and quite frankly, that’s not an inaccurate way of thinking about this 60s band. The Cowsills first gained success in the mid- to late-60s by performing bubblegum pop covers of popular songs. Their famed peaked in 1969 after they recorded the title song for the wildly popular musical Hair. The Cowsills then went on an extensive tour to capitalize on their newfound fame, which led to the release of The Cowsills in Concert in late 1969 on MGM Records. The album of course contains their signature song “Hair,” but the vast majority of the tracks are covers of songs popular at the time including “Monday, Monday,” “Good Vibrations” and “Paperback Writer” among others. Most of these songs are pretty much straightforward covers with little or no deviation from the original recordings. While none of the songs are really bad, they certainly don’t experiment or attempt to excite listeners in any new way. It’s hard to distinguish any sense of who the band really is since they almost exclusively cover others’ songs. Perhaps the one refreshing song on the album is “Act Naturally.” It too is a cover, but it’s very different from the other songs on the album as it never achieved “mega hit” status and actually dabbles with a twangier sound than you’d expect from such a predictable bubblegum pop band. It’s hard to truly recommend this album because it lacks something of its own. While the songs are good, they’re good in the same way that an oldies radio station is good––they are songs that you’ve heard a million times and might even enjoy singing along to, but they’re really not exciting or energizing in any way. Ultimately, The Cowsills lacked creativity, originality and that extra something special to set them apart from the thousands of other musicians trying to make it in the mid- to late-60s. If you’re looking for something feel-good this album might be okay for you; if you’re looking for something radical, check out the plethora of great 60s underground reviews below.  D+

The Strawberry Alarm Clock – Incense and Peppermints

ImageUpon first glance of the album, it is immediately clear that Incense and Peppermints is a 60s psychedelic rock album. With bright colors, stylized letters, intricate designs and a photo of the band members wearing flowery clothing and lounging on equally flowery pillows, this album cover spews pure psychedelic essence. Released in 1967 on Uni Records, Incense and Peppermints is the debut album of one of the most influential psychedelic rock bands of the time. The Strawberry Alarm Clock didn’t just dabble in psychedelic music; they lived and played the entire essence of psychedelic culture. When preforming live, the band would come out on “magic” carpets and put on an entire display to go along with the music. Their commitment to the psychedelic culture is evident from the moment the needle drops. The album’s opening song, “The World’s on Fire,” is full of elaborate sound effects, heavy feedback from the guitars and surrealistic lyrics. The album continues along in this vein for most of the album, often relying on special sound effects to produce a very unique and captivating sound. One of the high points on the album is the song “Rainy Day Mushroom Pillow,” which includes Steve Bartek playing a psychedelic flute. Although Steve Bartek was not considered an official member of the band, he played flute on several of the songs, and ultimately helped define The Strawberry Alarm Clock’s early sound. While most of the songs on the album are firmly based in rock ‘n’ roll, their most popular song, “Incense and Peppermints,” became part of the emerging psychedelic/bubblegum pop sound. It contains a catchy melody and strong harmonization while still maintaining a hefty dose of psychedelic sound effects. This album is most definitely a requirement for anyone with even a mild interest in psychedelic music. There really isn’t much to say against the album. It will always be a classic in the underground 60s music world.  A+

The Critters – Younger Girl

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Released on Kapp Records in 1966, Younger Girl is the debut album of the little known pop rock band from New Jersey––The Critters. Modeling their name off of other successful 60s bands (The Beatles, The Animals, The Turtles, etc.), The Critters hoped to rise to fame by combining pop harmonies with the developing rock ‘n’ roll style. Throughout the album the band moves from pop songs to surf/garage rock songs with varying degrees of success. While The Critters gained some mild success for their cover of John Sebastian’s “Younger Girl,” it’s hardly their best pop harmony on the album. “Children and Flowers” and “He’ll Make You Cry” stand out as songs that best capture the   band’s harmonic qualities. Both songs are catchy and sweet without becoming too much of a cliché 60s pop song. In fact “Children and Flowers” seems to foreshadow the psychedelic pop/bubblegum pop sounds of bands like The Box Tops. Besides being firmly rooted in the world of 60s radio-friendly pop, The Critters also dabble in garage rock with songs like “It Just Won’t Be That Way” and “Blow My Mind.” While both songs stand out as very good examples of mid-60s garage rock, “Blow My Mind” might do just that. It’s loud, obnoxious, stripped down and generally the exact opposite of “Younger Girl.” Fans of the heaviness of garage rock maybe even protopunk will  be amazed that this song even made it on the album. Although The Critters find success on both ends of the mid-60s spectrum, the album as a whole still leaves something to be desired. Where the band falls flat, they fall pretty hard. Songs like “I’ll Wear a Silly Grin” give the sense that the album was hurriedly thrown together with too much filler. Perhaps if they had spent a little more time in the studio or a little more time writing songs, this album could reach even higher points. Despite these unfortunate misgivings, the album is still worth getting a hold of. There are some pretty audacious songs, and 60s music lovers will be able to find something for them whether they are pop enthusiasts or garage rock addicts.  B

The Peppermint Rainbow – Will You Be Staying After Sunday

ImageThe Peppermint Rainbow first came to notoriety after Mama Cass Elliot from The Mamas and the Papas recommended them to Decca Records after attending one of their shows. The band was soon signed, and in 1969 they released Will You Be Staying After Sunday. Although this would be there one and only record, they seemed to have left their mark on the sunshine pop genre. Several of the album’s songs, most notably the title track “Will You Be Staying After Sunday” and “Walking in Different Circles,” feature prominent upbeat vocal harmonies and simplistic yet catchy rhythms. With a good combination of both male and female vocalists, The Peppermint Rainbow thrive in vocal heavy tracks. Interestingly enough, the band also flirts with psychedelic pop on tracks such as “Pink Lemonade” and “Green Tambourine.” These songs (my personal favorites) incorporate traditional psychedelic pop features like distortion and surrealistic lyrics in order break the monotony of incredibly cheerful sunshine pop songs. These two songs do a lot to bring the album familiarity and quality. For all of the positive aspects of the album, Will You Be Staying After Sunday lacks several key things to truly set this album apart. Although The Peppermint Rainbow often sound fresh, they struggle to find their own identity through a myriad of covers and sound-alikes. The album also fails to be consistent. When the tracks aren’t enjoyable, they can be dreadful––songs like “Jamais” and “Sierra (Chasin’ My Dream)” come to mind. This lack of consistency is perhaps why the band’s post-album recordings failed to materialize into a second album despite a mildly popular debut. Overall, this album is a fairly decent 60s sunshine pop album with some very solid tunes. If you enjoy sunshine pop or are willing to dabble outside of your comfort zone, then you should pick up this album. If you are into harder rock ‘n’ roll bands, there’s plenty of other talented bands reviewed below.  B-