Friday, March 28, 2014

Guantanamera - The Sandpipers

The Sandpipers
A&M SP 4117

I was watching the old movie "Penny Serenade" a while back.  It is pretty sappy but I love the narrative device used to construct the movie.  In the film Irene Dunne plays a record collector whose marriage to Cary Grant is heading towards a break-up.  She is packing up to leave him when she comes across her album of 78s.  She pulls them out and starts playing them.  Each 78 represents a different period in her relationship with Grant and the music triggers a series of flashbacks that tell their story.  How would that work nowadays?  Is she going to whip out her smart phone and start reminiscing about how she downloaded this song on her honeymoon and so forth?  Yecch.  I come after the 78 era, but I could definitely do this with my LPs.  In fact several of my posts are biographical in nature because so many of my favorite records are deeply connected to my memories of the past.  In my version of "Penny Serenade" this album would probably kick off my story.  It is the earliest music album I can remember being a fan of.  My father had this record and given that his collection was devoted to crooners and mariachi music, it was the closest thing he had to a rock record when I was a child.  My father only played side one, he liked the title song.  Even after all these years I still have side one memorized in my head I heard it so many times back then.  Side two on the other hand I barely know at all.  My sisters and I adored this record, it was our favorite record until my father came home with "If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears" by the Mamas and the Papas a few years later.  Then I discovered the Monkees and the Beatles and soon I lost all interest in this record.  I didn't even consider taking it when I grew up and left home and it probably ended up in a landfill.  In my 30s I started getting nostalgic about my childhood and wanted to hear this album again even though soft rock has never been my thing.  So I bought a copy of my own and played it again with a mixture of anticipation and dread - dread that my childhood treasure would embarrass me.  To my relief I found that I still liked it and I still like it now as well.  The Sandpipers were a trio of vocalists, Jim Brady, Michael Piano and Richard Shoff who sang ensemble vocals over subdued instrumental arrangements that range from easy listening to folk pop to bossa nova to lounge style jazz.  Their lethargic sound is augmented by an uncredited female vocalist whose soaring voice adds much needed vitality to the record.  She is so prominent on the album that my sisters and I assumed she was the woman on the cover - why else would she be on the cover we naively wondered.  On the title track the woman singer has been identified as Robie Lester who made a career out of singing in cartoons and Disney children's records.  On the rest of the record I presume the singer is Pamela Ramcier who was associated with the group throughout their recording career and also toured with them.  I find it pretty obnoxious that they did not simply make her a full-fledged member or at least give her a credit, she was a better singer than they were.  My favorite song on the album is "Cast Your Fate To The Wind," a song that I have loved nearly my entire life after hearing it on this record.  My favorite version is the Vince Guaraldi original, but this is not far behind.  It features a folk-rock arrangement augmented by Latin jazz style flute runs with an atmospheric vocal that really sends me.  I used to play it over and over as a child.  My other favorite song on the album is "Guantanamera" which was a top ten hit for the group.  It was adapted by Pete Seeger from a popular Cuban song for English speaking audiences.  The poetic verses are in Spanish but there is a spoken translation in the middle of the song over which Lester sings another verse in Spanish.  It is largely driven by acoustic guitars and sounds lovely.  There are several other Spanish language songs on the album (probably why my father liked it so much) presumably attempting to capitalize on the title song's success.  They include a bilingual version of Frank Sinatra's big hit "Strangers In The Night" with a Latin-style arrangement and Keith Colley and Paul Rubio's "Enamorado" with female back-up singers giving it some welcome energy.  There is also a bilingual version of the Mexican folk song "La Bamba" that is so slow as to be practically unrecognizable to fans of Ritchie Valens' famous rock and roll version.  The female vocal on the song comes close to overwhelming the boys' laid back vocal.  Rock and roll does not fare any better with a Spanish language version of "Louie, Louie" given a glacially slow romantic arrangement.  It sounds comical, but it actually works surprisingly well if you like that sort of thing.  The Spanish influence is also present on "Carmen," a pop adaptation of Bizet's opera.  The international flavor of the record extends to France with "La Mer (Beyond the Sea)" sung in English in a relatively uptempo performance (by Sandpiper standards) but which pales next to Bobby Darin's classic version although the quasi-bossa nova arrangement is appealing.  Italy is represented by "Stasera Gli Angeli Non Volano" which had been released as single the previous year by the New Christy Minstrels (recording as the Minstrels.)  It is a beautiful song sung entirely in Italian, very romantic.  There is also a cover of the Beatles' "Things We Said Today" given a slight Latin flavor but otherwise sticking close to the original.  I like it and wish there were more songs like it on the record.  "What Makes You Dream, Pretty Girl" is a straight forward romantic pop song with a nice chamber pop feel to it.  Finally there is a cover of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil's "Angelica" which is best known in Gene Pitney's version from the same year although my favorite version is Scott Walker's on his debut solo album.  The Sandpipers' performance is typically pretty and romantic, but I miss the drama of the Pitney and Walker versions.  Do I really recommend this record?  I imagine many rock fans will hate it and I'm not sure I would like it much if I hadn't grown up with it.  Nonetheless having enjoyed it for nearly 50 years, I think there must be more to my fondness for it than mere nostalgia.  The music is consistently lovely, especially the female vocalizing, and the arrangements are tasteful and engaging.  It is one of the most overtly romantic records in my collection and sounds particularly fine after a tough day, unwinding at home with a glass of wine and a special someone.  Recommended to fans of Antonio Carlos Jobim.

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