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The Byrds / Curt Boettcher / Gary Usher | Preflyte / California: Passionfruit / Add Some Music To Your Day (Poptones)
What a magic swirling ship the Poptones label has become. Someone for sure would reissue the Byrds demos but the Beach Boys related Passionfruit and Add Some Music are a wacky surprise. The Byrds demos are worth investigating despite their period simplicity (it mostly sounds Mersey Beat) and demo quality. Of the tunes featured here which they later recorded for CBS only I Knew I’d Want You could be seen as the better version. It has an almost mediaeval sparseness in its arrangement and the guitars are picked rather than strummed. Crosby’s overarching harmony voice at the top is beautiful. Yet to any Byrds fan the little differences in the vocal constructions of all the versions are enjoyable. They were always great singers. Of course their subtle instrumentation took a little working out and maybe the odd session-man to set the standard. The early Tambourine Man has an awkward bassline although Hillman’s part on the Chuck Berry like Boston really swings and shows a man on top of rock’s heritage if not sure yet of its future – folk rock perhaps. The rhythm guitar also has an over obvious Searchers style presence at times, all twangy beginner’s guitar chords very in your face but heck, it was a long time ago and how many other rock groups’ work from 1964 has, overall, this much charm? The first release of this album in 1969 was organised by the Byrds famous producer, Brian Wilson buddy and collaborator, and general West Coast Mr. Somebody, Gary Usher. California, aka the Legendary Masked Surfers, aka California Music was a loose collective of West Coast musos originally formed by Bruce Johnson, Terry Melcher and Gary Usher, usually featuring Jan and Dean, Curt Boettcher and Brian Wilson. Little was released and eventually only Boettcher and Usher remained and California Passionfruit (credited here to Boettcher) is the unreleased fruit of their endeavours. Both this and the Usher album are surely releases to capitalise on the enormous market for everything Beach Boys related. Otherwise Passionfruit is radio 2 circa 1973, Saturday night TV Summer Special material or music suitable for a late middle-aged gay suburban garden cocktail party. Most of the singing features high androgynous voices with multiple layers of harmony. The songs’ style is bright and sunny, sometimes Latin tinged but frequently Caribbean flavoured and most feature a disco beat. Although Boettcher had been involved with some quite hip harmony groups like The Association and himself played in even hipper groups, by the early 1970s he was happily working as a disco producer. Like the rest of his gang, and a large part of American society, Boettcher was, in the early 1970s, gazing nostalgically back to that version of 1950s America portrayed in Happy Days and American Graffiti. Thus we are presented with several old tunes, Western and Caribbean, that your mother may know but your grandmother definitely will; Iko Iko, Jamaica Farewell, Music Music Music etc. Yet for determined must- have collectors little nuggets of joy soon emerge; California Music is an articulate, fast guitar study with clever layers of vocal harmony that eventually dissolves into a slick slinky 70s guitar and feels like we’re on an exciting night flight to an exotic location. Better still is the interpretation of the Beatles The Word (which has an easy disposition to having a disco stomp beat) which has nice staggered drum passages and chorus harmonies that sound like the Fifth Dimension at their wonderful best. In 1969 Gary Usher used the famous LA Wrecking Crew and the LA Symphony Orchestra on Add Some Music To Your Day in the hope of raising the stature of his friend Brian Wilson to that of a Gershwin, of a great American C20 Artist and also to launch his own new Together Records into the easy listening market. Again Boettcher (along with Keith Olsen) helped with the venture. Again unreleased. It is an entirely orchestral work, dignified, gracious even, serious and focused and with no jarring edges. It takes very little liberty with the original tunes and certainly doesn’t take the music into wholly modern styles, which was attempted with varying degrees of success on the recent Marina album Caroline Now! Upon seeing a medley title like Fall Breaks/Good Vibrations/Heroes and Villains you may expect a heady musical excursion to a Disneyfied magical Wilson World but Usher settles for a sequence of the gentlest parts of those three songs. Nothing to upset the vicar. It is however done with some style, some imagination. It is clever and involving - elevator music it ain’t. The Warmth of the Sun has a Michel Legrand Summer of ’42 style and Busy Doin’ Nothin’ feels like Jobim. Which is nice. In My Room has the deepest resonance of all and leaves you feeling sage and settled. Who’d have thought?
CWAS #8 - Summer 2001