Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Another Hit from the Folks' Record Cabinet

On Sunday, we went to my folks' house for Father's Day and I asked to borrow the Four Freshman album In a Class by Themselves. This is another one of those albums that played a big roll in my childhood. There was a period of time, probably only about a week or two but it felt like longer, when I needed to hear this album every night before bed, as my sister and I had our glass of Quik.

My folks were both very big Four Freshman fans, to the point that I wonder if I would be here right now typing about this if the group hadn't been around. Once, when they came to town, Mum met them after the show and invited them to a party at her house (she still lived at home, but there were always parties there) and two of them showed up. A few years ago, she retold the story and said that it was only years later that she wondered if they showed up hoping to get lucky. (They didn't, by the way.)

Anyhow, this album came out at a time when the vocal group was attempting to remain current amidst the pop music boom of the '60s. Their vocal arrangements were really unique and were a huge influence on the Beach Boys, who were now supplanting them. So this album includes standards like "Canadian Sunset" and "Girl Talk," as well as dubious choices like Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" and the New Vaudeville Band's "Winchester Cathedral." It was the latter two songs that really stood out to my ears as a kid, especially "Winchester Cathedral," because Ross Barbour delivers it in what was known as his "Leroy" voice, something akin to Donald Duck. And ironically the delivery makes it pretty impossible to make out the words.

That song comes at the end of side one, and follows an absolutely eerie take on Paul Simon's "Old Friends." The latter number is done fairly rubato with a lot of a cappella sequences, interspersed with some sawing strings, similar to Psycho though not as shrill. In short, it really goes a long way towards capturing the song's underlying messasge about the fear of growing old, especially when one of the guys, with a lower voice, practically whispers, "How terribly strange to be 70." (In what seems like a connection, the liner notes mention the fact that the band was 40 years old at the time of the recording). I'm sure someone at Liberty Records insisted they needed to really lighten things up following that song.

The cover of the album always puzzled me. A dame in feather boas, laying on a table next to a pile of grapes and a bucket of champagne. At the top of the hill behind her sat a Mercedes. How is she going to get to her car, I used to wonder. Where are the steps?

Yes, I looked at this cover a lot. It's a miracle the record still plays. Along with the Fifth Dimension's Greatest Hits, Equinox by Sergio Mendes and a couple Herb Alpert albums, this was probably one of the albums that gave me ideas about how melodies and harmonies should sound - prior to discovering and being smitten by the Beatles and Alice Cooper.

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