Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Bloggin' about Burt

When I was about five or six years old, my dad bought a cassette version of Burt Bacharach's Make It Easy on Yourself. I played it all the time, most likely because it was there but also because I did think it was pretty catchy to my youthful ears. Pop had a bunch of pre-recorded tapes that factor heavily into my musical outlook. As I might have said before, some of my earlier musical memories involved the tapes of the 5th Dimension's Greatest Hits, Sergio Mendes & Brasil 66's Equinox and a Herbie Mann sampler with "Comin' Home Baby" and "Philly Dog."

Make it Easy on Yourself found Burt leading a studio orchestra through several of his hit songs. This was one of a few albums he did for A&M, and this particular one leaned heavily on tunes from his then-recent Broadway hit Promises Promises. In some ways, this album is a textbook version of Easy Listening, with strings and warm brass and anonymous female singers cooing the words to "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," "Wanting Things," and a few stray lines in a couple other songs. In Rolling Stone's first edition of their Record Guide around 1979, they gave all of these albums a bullet rating, which meant they were worse than one-star albums, truly awful.

I'm here to tell you they were wrong, wrong, wrong.

Now that I have a new needle for our good turntable, I whipped out Make It Easy On Yourself, craving the instrumental version of "Do You Know The Way to San Jose." One of the beautiful things about this album is the way Burt (sorry, I can't simply refer to him as Bacharach) regularly scores the melody so each phrase moves to a different instrument while still sounding consonant. Marimba bangs out the intro here, leading to a pregnant pause before a rather Herb Alpert-like trumpet takes the first phrase. A guitar - I think - picks up the "L.A. is a great big freeway" line, leading to some other percussively stringy instrument. It's not complex, it's irresistably catchy and it helped me to think of music in visual or human terms as a kid, which kept my synapses firing.

"Promises Promises" is a tour de force, one that kicks off the album at that. It's already a complex song time-wise, but there is a lot of tension and release. It begins gently and builds to what sounds like a climax, with a piano banging the chords beneath a surging brass section. Then it pulls back, brings those vocalists in for a whopping three lines, then it surges even higher into the real "bring it home" finale. It's so raucous that the drummer seems to lose the beat on the turnaround, and struggles to keep up. Maybe that's not true since the composer is such a perfectionist, but it doesn't take anything away from the song.

My other favorite song on the album is "Knowing When to Leave." Yet again, the melody moves around the room, from oboe to saxophone to trumpet. But the song's strongpoint comes with the way Burt gets the orchestra to roar like a rock band, punching out the lead-in beats to the next phrase and building tension around a dangling chord alteration at the end of a line.

This is sounding a little too academic. Let me put it another way - very few things, outside of Mama Cass or "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" fill me with such musical joy. The quiet coda of this song (also used in Dionne Warwick's version) always puzzled me, making me think of someone alone and sad after a big party is over. I prefer Sue Ramey's version, released on Imperial, where she goes back into the roaring part before the song fades out. I found a copy of it in a Goodwill once, with the flip-side being a cabaret-style cover of the Monkees' "Early Morning Blues and Greens," which isn't nearly as successful.

I didn't listen to Make it Easy On Yourself at all from about age 12 until the time is about 24. That summer, something in my mind told me to find a used copy of it. My roommate thought I was nuts. He had a Burt album on our mantelpiece that he used to roll joints on. He saw no other value for the schlub on the cover.

Within a year, he changed his tune.


lulu moolah said...

from the vinyl anachronist (who ain't me)

I've always assumed that the most rarest and most desired of LP collector's items was either John and Yoko's Two Virgins or the butcher-baby version of the Beatles' Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. Nope. It's... drumroll, please... the soundtrack album for CASINO ROYALE, with music by Burt Bacharach. This is the vinyl equivalent of a real Shelby AC Cobra- no one who owns one is willing to part with it for any amount of money. I've heard stories of mint, sealed copies going for as much as ten grand! I once saw one for $150, but I hesitated because I felt that for that kind of money it'd be in truly terrible condition. Someone else bought it later that same day, so I never found out.

So why is it that Casino Royale is so valuable? First, the sound quality is supposed to be incredible. And second, CASINO ROYALE was such a miserable- piece-of-shit-of-a-movie (spoken like a true Bond fan--I mean, Woody Allen as little Jimmy Bond?) that they didn't make very many of them. So for most LP collectors, this was a bit of a Holy Grail. Until now. No, they didn't reissue it (that would surely piss off every collector who spent a fortune on a copy). But they did release "The Look Of Love," from the album, sung by the incomparable Dusty Springfield, on a 12" single! In fact, on one side it's "The Look Of Love," at 33 1/3 RPM, with a flip-side of exactly the same song at 45 RPM! Some audiophiles feel that 45 RPM sounds slightly better, with less surface noise, but I've listened and I can't really tell a difference. It sounds great- the perfect thing for your next cocktail party, especially with all this renewed interest in Bacharach. And it's only $10- a lot for a single, but consider its history. There's only one problem. Now I want a copy of the entire soundtrack more than ever.

lulu moolah (who the vinyl anachronist ain't either)

shanleymusic said...

Bob - Did you just paste this from somewhere?