Saturday, December 10, 2011

Crimson & Clover - Tommy James and the Shondells

Crimson & Clover
Tommy James and the Shondells
Roulette  SR-42023

One of the things I find most interesting about pop music in the 1960s is the way in which so many music groups were transformed by the psychedelic era, not just major groups like the Beatles, Beach Boys and Rolling Stones, but even ordinary garage bands suddenly found ambition and began producing elaborate records.  I don't think that any group really traveled farther than these guys though.  After a couple of years of producing some of the crassest bubblegum music around with considerable commercial success, they suddenly unleashed this pseudo-psychedelic epic on the unsuspecting teeny-boppers.  The title song is perhaps the best psych-bubblegum song of all time, rivaled only by "Green Tambourine" and "Incense and Peppermints" and to my mind better than either.  Lyrically it is as inane as the group's earlier work, but musically it is terrific.  Written by James and drummer Peter Lucia, the song features a simple but hypnotic riff that is endlessly repeated but subjected to gradually increasing technical manipulation that distorts it, accompanied by a lot of guitar soloing until the song reaches its climax and the song concludes with tremolo distorting the vocal.  It is such a stupid song that I'm embarrassed that I like it so much, but I do and I always have since I first heard it in my early teens.  "Kathleen McArthur" reminds me of the late 1960s Hollies in its pop craftsmanship.  It is a simple song about a gardener in love with a rich girl with mild tones of social criticism.  Psychedelia returns for "I Am a Tangerine" which features a lot of manipulated sound.  The lyrics are ludicrous, they sound like a parody, I don't know how anyone could sing a line like "hello banana, I am a tangerine" without cracking up.  Side one ends with "Do Something To Me" which is the only song that was not written or co-written by Tommy James.  It is a return to the bubblegum music that made the group famous.  I suspect Roulette made them stick it on there to placate the fan base.  It is totally inconsistent with the tone of the rest of the record.  Side two kicks off with another hit single "Crystal Blue Persuasion" which has an idyllic feeling reminiscent of the Rascals' "Groovin'" and is driven by a simple organ riff.  People have claimed it is a drug song but if you listen to the words it is obviously about love and God.  "Sugar On Sunday" is similar to the title song, a dumb love song with a nice riff and a mildly psychedelic musical style.  It was a modest hit for the Clique.  "Breakaway" is the hardest rocking song on the album and makes effective use of fuzz guitar.  It was arguably a garage band cliche by 1969 but it never gets old for me.  "Smokey Roads" is a slow rocker with a psych feel to it that describes how one can never go home again.  The album ends with "I'm Alive" with effectively blends the band's former bubblegum sound with a fuzz-laden garage band approach to produce one of the best songs on the album.  It reminds me of Paul Revere and the Raiders.  "Crimson and Clover" is reprised briefly at the end of the song to presumably demonstrate that this is a meaningful album and not just a bunch of songs.  I assume that is also the reason for the inclusion of between takes chatter, false endings and stray pieces of music that appear sporadically through the album.  It is hardly "Sgt. Pepper" but this is a consistently enjoyable album and an impressive leap forward for a commercial group seeking respectability and credibility.  The band probably didn't help their cause much though by printing a letter from Hubert Humphrey on the back of the album lauding them for help in his presidential campaign, but at least it was not from Nixon.  Recommended for people who prefer the Strawberry Alarm Clock to the 13th Floor Elevators.   

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