The Small Faces – Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake

The Small Faces – Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake

Released – May 15th, 1968

Although its roots are as old as the long-player itself, the late 1960s is often credited with (or blamed for) the emergence of the “concept album,” the unified narratives and extended song-suites that – for both better and worse – came to symbolize a certain kind of profundity in the album-rock era. Many of the early entries in the concept-album canon came from artists who emerged during the British Invasion and who used the new format to assess the musical and cultural crossroads of Cool Britannia’s pop-art explosions and the expanding universe of psychedelia or early prog. Artists like The Who (Sell Out and Tommy), The Kinks (Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur), The Zombies (Odessey and Oracle), The Pretty Things (S.F. Sorrow) and, oh yeah, The Beatles (Sgt, Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) balanced the concept album’s liberating possibilities with their original commitment to pop’s concentrated pleasures.

The Small Faces entered this conversation with Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, the final album (save for late-1970s reunion efforts) released during their brief and bright career. Ogdens earned its conceptual reputation because of a second-side narrative that traces the travels of an adventurer named Happiness Stan. But the most compelling journey articulated here is that of the band themselves. They call back to their roots in the pop and R&B of the sha-la-la sixties and gesture towards contemporaneous experimentations by The Kinks and The Who. (There are moments here that seem like direct homages – or even loving parodies – of those groups’ signature styles. Happiness Stan seems like a cousin to the Who’s “Happy Jack” in more than just his name.) They revisit the sunny-afternoon escapism of “Itchycoo Park,” the clanging portent of “Tin Soldier,” and their other great singles. And they presage their own divided future, as front man Steve Marriott moved on to bluesy hard-rockers Humble Pie while the three remaining members added Rod Stewart and Ron Wood to create the good-natured riot of The Faces.

The first side doesn’t share the second half’s narrative contrivance, but it’s united by songs that musically illustrate these shared and diverging trajectories. With intersecting voices and instruments, the quartet weaves through the vaudeville-R&B stomp of “Rene,” proto folk-metal of “Song of a Baker,” or shape-shifting rock of “Afterglow of Your Love” and “Long Agos and Worlds Apart.” (These tracks offer particular showcase for drummer Kenney Jones, whose expert work bridges the gap between Ringo snap and Keith Moon blast). On the side-ending “Lazy Sunday,” a Kinks-esque jaunt that became a UK hit single, crashing guitars and honking kazoos surround Marriott as he embodies a well-known character in both Faces phases: the working-class guy whose attempt to enjoy himself gets shut down by the stuffy society that surrounds him. Laughing in defiance, Marriott and the boys sing together in celebration of friendship’s open arms and a free thinker’s open mind.

The story of Happiness Stan does similar work. Structured by interludes spoken in slangy dialect by Stanley Unwin, the narrative concerns Stan’s quest to find the missing half of the moon, which leads him to befriending a hungry fly who – in exchange for food – tells him of a hermit named Mad John who can answer his questions. It’s all a bit ponderous, although Unwin’s jovial tone and the group’s general amiability help take the piss out of any pretense. Ultimately, and unsurprisingly, the music does as much as the lyrics to get the message across. Stan sets out to the pulse of “Rollin’ Over,” where McLagan’s keyboards walk through a maelstrom of Memphis horns and Hendrix guitars. The darkness of “The Journey” is communicated through Booker T. breakbeats and seeping electronic noise. And the meeting with Mad John – a spooky but ultimately helpful figure – is set to an evocative reel that nods to the misty-mountain hop of folk-rock newcomers like Fairport Convention and Pentangle. As on the first side, the band finds its denouement in a jovial knees-up sing-a-long called “Happydaystoytown.” In character as Mad John, bassist Ronnie Lane (who co-wrote all the songs with Marriott, occasionally adding McLagan and Jones to the credit line) offers some advice to Happiness Stan and anybody else who might be listening. “Live as only you can/It’s all about enjoy it, ’cause ever since you saw it/There ain’t no one can take it away.”

If you forget how, The Small Faces are happy to help. “When you’re untogether and feeling out of tune,” they offer, “sing this special song with me.” Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake is an album-length affirmation of this crucial lesson. What a concept.

Best tracks: “Lazy Sunday,” “Rollin’ Over

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Tiny Tim – God Bless Tiny Tim

Tiny Tim – God Bless Tiny Tim

Released: April, 1968

Even as the late-1960s musical counterculture explored new worlds, it made a surprising amount of room for earlier American pop. Artists from The Beatles to The Mamas & The Papas employed repertoire and textures from pop traditions that ranged from the sentimental and silly sides of vaudeville through the “great American songbook” heyday of mid-20th century. (Later in 1968, Mama Cass Elliott even scored a solo hit with her revival of “Dream A Little Dream.”) At its best, the embrace of earlier pop eras was not a nostalgic quest for stability in an era of tumult, but rather demonstrated the fallacy of those “good old days” mythologies through a mixture of campy irreverence and earnest sincerity. For these artists, the hidden gems and hoary standards of the Tin Pan Alley era represented the “old, weird America” as well as any other musical forbear.

Among the Aquarian Antiquarians, nobody was better – or weirder – than Tiny Tim. Born Herbert Khaury, Tiny Tim rose to fame as a club performer whose unique look and performances led to a deal with Reprise Records. There, he found a perfect collaborator in producer Richard Perry, whose celebrated work with Barbra Streisand, Harry Nilsson and others bridged the gap between older pop and the freaky new world. Perry surrounds Tiny Tim’s voice and ukelele with a lush fantasia that Tim describes with a knowing wink and loving giggle. As he sings in “Fill Your Heart,” “Things that happened in the past, happened only in your mind/Forget your mind, and you’ll be free.”

The primary mode through which Tim invites us to dream a little dream with him is through his remarkably flexible vocals. He’s most famous for his falsetto, which he uses on his hit version of “Tip-toe Thru’ The Tulips With Me” and which appears on most of the songs. This trademark is justifiable. With its rapid vibrato and shifts between sweet purr and shrill drama, Tiny Tim’s falsetto is nuanced and effective, demonstrating  the technique’s sustained importance in pop music and its particular effectiveness in blurring lines between “masculine” and “feminine” singing. Historian Allison McCracken discusses this process in an astonishing book on crooning in the 20th century, the origin period for many of the songs on God Bless Tiny Tim. Falsetto had been a dominant mode of male pop singing in the 1920s, but it became associated with a dangerous, even un-American effiminacy and was thus repressed in the 1930s and 1940s heyday of the crooners. McCracken notes that Tiny Tim reclaimed this marginalized moment and “reinforced – to an absurd degree – the association of male performance from the 1920s with strange, ‘queer’ sounds.” Or, as Tim sings on the love-crazy “Ever Since You Told Me You Loved Me (I’m A Nut)” as his voice soars to some of its highest pitches, “It feels so queer, since you are near, dear!”

Throughout the album, he sings as characters that are male, female and whose gender is not identified. On “Livin’ In The Sunlight, Lovin’ In The Moonlight,” from a 1930 film, he marks this ambiguity through an ode to social and sexual independence. “Things that bother you, never bother me,” he asserts, recalling a later artist who also used falsetto to destabilize gender. Just like Prince, Tiny Tim knows that he’s something that you’d never understand.  In an interesting twist, one of the first hit versions of “Livin’ In The Sunlight” was performed by Bing Crosby, whose career is used by McCracken as a symbol of the broader move away from falsetto towards a deeper-voiced (and more safely “masculine”) vocal approach. Tim’s high-pitched version – where he also changes the line “I’m as free as any dove” to “I’m as free as any daughter” – becomes both contemporary genderfuck and historical intervention.

At times, he presents multiple characters in playful or even seductive conversation. In “On the Old Front Porch” Tim plays three different roles in describing a sexual encounter between two characters who wait for night to fall “so that we can do nice things that no one can see.” He sings in falsetto as the female partner, and in chest voice as both male suitor and the woman’s suspicious father. Performing a variety of gender roles, Tiny Tim offers a sly commentary on pop androgyny that extends even into the most seemingly hetero of pop worlds. The only nod he makes to the current occupants of the Hit Parade is the hilarious version of Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” where he brilliantly alternates between slurring macho and exaggerated femininity. And he even seduces himself. On a steel-drenched honky-tonk version of George M. Cohan’s “Then I’d Be Satisfied With Life,” he appears as his own fan and/or lover, cooing “Tiny, I love you” and “Oh, Tiiiinnny” throughout the song. He does not sing these lines in falsetto.

At the beginning of the album, Tiny Tim invites us to join him in his dream. At the end, he thanks everyone for doing so. Fifty years later, that dream still retains its uniquely alluring power. Come with him. Be free. God bless us everyone.

Best tracks: “Livin’ In The Sunlight, Lovin’ In The Moonlight,” “On the Old Front Porch

 

Dolly Parton – Just Because I’m A Woman

Dolly Parton – Just Because I’m A Woman

Released – April 22nd, 1968

On the cover of Just Because I’m A Woman, Dolly Parton is framed as though she’s standing in a doorway, welcoming you into her world with outstretched arms and a warm smile. But the framing of the image also suggests that she’s trapped inside a bell jar, occupying a world that is not entirely of her own creation. With twinned acoustic guitars spiraling around her, the Parton-penned title track affirms this duality. Here, with a gently insistent melody and razor-sharp lyric, Parton laments a world of gendered double standards where a man gets to sleep around with “good girls” and then “ruin [their] reputation” but will only accept a virginal “angel to wear his wedding band.” Addressing a man who she hopes will treat her better, Parton reminds him that “I know that I’m no angel if you think that’s what you found,” but rather “just the victim of a man who let me down.”

Parton fills this album – her first for RCA Victor, containing a mix of originals and covers of Nashville aces like Harlan Howard and Curly Putnam – with such statements of wounded defiance. Sometimes they’re delivered with a bluesy laugh, like the rush of “A Little Bit Slow To Catch On” or “I’m Running Out Of Love,” where pulsing rhythms match Parton’s harried enthusiasm. (Her voice sparkles and shines throughout, riding atop arrangements that remain rooted in country traditions while subtly previewing Parton’s glorious pop crossovers.) There’s joy in revenge fantasies like the rumbling “You’re Gonna Be Sorry” or the sly “I’ll Oil Wells Love You,” where corny puns drive a story of Parton turning the tables on a greedy man. In many places on the album, “woe is me” is matched by an equal assurance that “woe is you, too.”

Still, Parton knows that the stakes are too high to simply revel in the kiss-off. On “I Wish I Felt This Way At Home,” she admits to infidelity as a reaction to the failings of her partner, and she accepts her own ultimatum on the desperate realization of “The Only Way Out.” Her simmering anger boils over on “Baby Sister,” where Parton curses the man who hurt her beloved sibling. “I hope he dies a thousand times, a thousand ways.” And deep sorrow washes over the troubled jangle of “The Bridge,” written by Parton, where she evocatively describes how a couple’s trips to a bridge started as a symbol of romantic union before symbolizing its failure. Her man abandoned her after she got pregnant, leaving Parton’s protagonist to jump off the bridge and end the song in mid-verse.

While less startlingly unsettling, Parton’s version of “False Eyelashes” – written by Bob Tubert and Demetris Tapp – offers another affecting portrait of a young woman alone at the crossroads. Here, a young country singer travels back home to a family and community who think she’s hit it big because she made a record. But this is just an illusion: she’s stuck playing in a “dingy club” for no money and has only “false eyelashes” and make-up to mask her pain. Heading home, she awaits those she left behind in an “empty search for fame” and a community (including herself) that will have to reconcile the appearance of stardom – and the seeming freedom it provides – with a less glamorous and more bounded reality.

Parton’s story would be different in important ways, of course. For one thing, she’d debunk the idea that a glammed-up look was somehow a betrayal of one’s roots. Also, of course, she was already well-known by the release of this album, having gained fame as a songwriter, solo artist and the duet partner of Porter Wagoner. And Just Because I’m A Woman was the launch of a twenty-year run on RCA Victor that made her a megastar and forever redefined country music. But Parton likely recognized the woman at the center of “False Eyelashes” as a kindred spirit who saw music as a means of social mobility and a fellow traveler on the uneven terrain that country singers and others face just because they’re women. Parton insists that we honor this story and the others throughout the album, even – or perhaps especially – when they are as ambivalent as they are affirming. This is the world Dolly Parton has so brilliantly expressed in a career that has now spanned six decades and has made her one of country music’s most beloved and respected artists. Her invitation remains impossible to pass up.

Best tracks: “Just Because I’m A Woman,” “A Little Bit Slow To Catch On

 

 

The Monkees – The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees

The Monkees – The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees

Released: April 22, 1968

At the beginning of The Birds, The Bees and the Monkees, Davy Jones invites listeners to leave the “Dream World” behind. With his trademark gentle persistence, Jones insists that “it’s not real, [and] it’s not the way it seems to be.” Performing the classic pop doubling of lover’s come-on and communal invitation, his words additionally resonate with the Monkees’ famed attempt to assert their artistic independence and insist on their cultural relevance. The song (co-written by Jones) is thus a perfect opening statement for an album that further stakes out the group’s post-pre-fab identity even as it reckons with internal divisions so severe that each track is basically a solo effort bolstered by a crack studio crew. Peter Tork is barely on the album, while Jones, Micky Dolenz and Michael Nesmith produce each map and blur the boundaries between the dream world and its supposedly real counterpart. Unlike its two predecessors, the album is an odds-and-sods effort that’s pulled together from earlier singles and sessions. But this arresting album nonetheless possess a surprising coherence and power. Like the cultural and political moment that surrounded it, The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees holds fantasies and reckonings in tense balance as it surveys a landscape of disarray.

Michael Nesmith’s tracks leap across time, text and genre. Presaging his restless solo work, he wraps precise and often abstract lyrics around musical influences both expected and surprising. “Magnolia Simms” harkens back to early pop and jazz, complete with fake record hiss, a Dixieland brass section and scatting vocal. The retro gestures get mixed around on “Tapioca Tundra” – which moves from an acid-washed Western opening to jangly pop in a manner that makes it sound like the Byrds’s career in reverse – and refracted on the anxiety of the extended “Writing Wrongs.” Here, an arrhythmic piano lays atop a throbbing guitar and echoey Nesmith vocal, before an extended instrumental section that sounds not unlike a shiny studio version of the Velvet Underground.

Nesmith’s experimentations are matched or even exceeded by those of Micky Dolenz. Outside of the strutting groove of “I’ll Be Back Upon My Feet,” Dolenz’s tracks – written by Nesmith, Boyce & Hart, and others – are fairy-tale parables that barely disguise critiques of societal dysfunction. “Auntie’s Municipal Court” pairs ringing guitar with descriptions of people who live in us-versus-them opposition because “somebody stole their mind.” “P.O. Box 9847” uses a newspaper personal ad as a metaphor for miscommunication, a narrative mirrored by the dissonant harpsichord, screaming strings, and Dolenz’s increasingly higher-pitched cries of “I’m not liking what I’m typing.” Mirroring Jones’s request at the beginning, Dolenz closes the album with perhaps its most direct real-world commentary, the Vietnam War critique of “Zor and Zam.” Written by Bill and John Chadwick, “Zor and Zam” fades in with a waltzing military cadence that Dolenz trots across in falsetto as he tells of two kings who go to battle without asking for the support of their people. The brief, unsettling song concludes with a moment of surprising and perhaps unearned hope: “They gave a war and nobody came! And nobody came! And nobody came! And nobody came!”

While this offers a brief reprieve from the shadowy edges explored by both Dolenz and Nesmith, Davy Jones affirms the necessity of that hope repeatedly throughout his tracks. Beyond the sweet corn of “We Were Made For Each Other” and soul-adjacent horn pulse of “The Poster,” this is most obvious on the singles that became two of the band’s biggest and best hits. The reassuring soar of “Daydream Believer” (written by John Stewart) insists on the memory of first love’s dreamy glow as a necessity for long-term partnership. On the other hand, the lovestruck blast of “Valleri” comes on like a whirlwind, from its opening flamenco riff to the chorus’s Wall-of-Sound maelstrom, and explodes in quiet-loud-quiet bursts of instability. Both singles demonstrate that – while his colleagues provided its more obviously experimental work – Jones walked the album’s thematic and sonic terrain as intentionally as he suggests on the opening track.

That dynamic tension wouldn’t last much longer, as 1968 was the year that The Monkees began their precipitous fall from the charts and less-precipitous creative decline. Their TV show got cancelled. Birds, Bees & Monkees was their last platinum album, and they scored their final Top 10 hits with “Daydream Believer” and “Valleri.” Released in December, the film and soundtrack Head landed with a quizzical thud, though both have been justifiably reclaimed as fractured freak-out gems. Tork left, Nesmith soon followed, and the whole thing was over by the end of 1970 before a revival that began in the late 1980s and extended to 2016’s remarkable return to form Good Times.

They continue on, though not with their daydream believer. Davy Jones died in 2012, leaving the real world behind but still present in pop’s undying dream. As he and the other Monkees remind us here, those are just two sides of the same record.

Best tracks: “Daydream Believer,” “Valleri

 

Single-Minded: March/April

Any discussion of the music of 1968, or any other year, is incomplete by solely focusing on albums. So I thought I’d offer some assorted (jumbled) thoughts on some of the singles that reached the Top 10 of the Hot 100, Country and R&B charts during the year. Here’s the second installment. This is just a smattering of the hits, of course. There are some that I’ve avoided because I’ll talk about the albums on which they were included, or some because I don’t have much to say about them, and still others that I left off for no good reason. But these capsule portraits hopefully reveal some of the individually noteworthy moments on the upper reaches of the Hit Parade, as well as some surprising connections between them.

Otis Redding – “Sitting On The Dock of the Bay”

(#1 Pop/#1 R&B)

With his body in Memphis and his mind on the banks of the San Francisco Bay, at the intersection between southern soul and California pop that he foresaw through his participation at the Monterey Pop Festival, Otis Redding sits and waits for a new world to be born. The wistful descending guitar chords and gentle wind sounds waft around his pained vocals, which – like his fan Jimmy Cliff – sit in limbo as he finds the resolve to keep waiting, breathing and dreaming. But the waiting is the hardest part, and he whistles away his uncertainty as he ponders what might or might not come next. It’s not hard to imagine that this new world would’ve had a key place for Otis Redding, with his electric talent and rising stardom. But, by the time this song hit the top of the charts, he was gone. It’s a shame that he didn’t make it to that new world, and that he ended up whistling through his own graveyard. But, even fifty years later, you can still hear him on the breeze. Just sit, listen and wait.

The Fireballs – “Bottle of Wine”

(#9 Pop)

This barreling garage party initially sounds like an exuberant celebration of hedonistic excess, but it’s a flimsy mask for a desperate blues about the singer’s increasingly unworkable relationship with the bottle, which has both set him up and let him down. Maybe a more tonally appropriate take was beyond the capacity of the good-timing Fireballs, led by the amiable goof Jimmy Gilmer, whose previous hit was the giggly sex comedy “Sugar Shack.” But, then again, maybe the Fireballs understood that the desperation of the lyric was accentuated by the way that Tom Paxton’s cheery melody and the growling, devil-on-the-shoulder voice undercut the merry chorus of revelers.

Bobby Goldsboro – “Honey”

(#1 Pop/#1 Country)

Back in 1968, when “the music mattered, man,” this wispy near-parody was the #1 Pop hit in the United States the week after the assassination of Martin Luther King and it stayed on both Pop and Country charts throughout that cruel summer. I’m a proud poptimist, so I listened closely trying to figure out some secret resonance (or potential resistance) to the music or cultural contexts of the moment in Goldsboro’s muted vocals, washed-out arrangement and clumsy lyrics. But I can’t figure it out. Sorry.

The Box Tops – “Cry Like A Baby”

(#2 Pop)

“Cry Like A Baby” rushes in with the sound of the overwhelming love that vocalist Alex Chilton had and lost. Before he sings a note, the crack American Studios crew has set up the bubblegum bounce behind behind Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham’s gospel ode to helpless hopelessness. Chilton is particularly effective here, centering the swirling arrangement and finding a supple sweet spot between the gritty soul register he used on “The Letter” and the sweet pop ache he settled into with Big Star. He’s Romeo laid low, promising to do better if he’s lucky enough to get another chance. It’s not clear whether he’ll make good on these promises, but you can tell that he’s sincere in the moment as he falls to his knees and begs forgiveness.

Manfred Mann – “Quinn the Eskimo”

(#10 Pop)

Even as Dylan and The Band’s fabled “Basement Tapes” recordings remained hidden away, minus a few well-circulated bootlegs, several of the sessions’ songs found their way to the charts through recordings by other artists. One of the first and biggest was Manfred Mann’s lush pop version of Dylan’s cryptic portrait of a returning hero. Their take doesn’t exhibit the sepia-toned rootsiness of the Dylan-Band recordings, and thus remains free from their attendant “old, weird America” mythos, but there’s something strangely affecting about the way that the group – still treading the sonic pathways of the British Invasion – pairs Dylan’s unsettlingly cheery lyrics with the reassuring commands of lead singer Mike D’Abo and his whistling chorus of zealots.

James Brown – “I Got The Feelin’”

(#6 Pop/#1 R&B)

Leave it to the Godfather of Soul and the peak-period JBs to create tracks like “I Got A Feelin’” that are simultaneously air-tight and so full of space that there are entire phrases in the rests between punches of horns and stabs of drum. These are funk linguistics at their most sophisticated; when the band drops out on “baby, baby, baby,” which he offers in near-identical repetitions, his pleading R&B past collapses and is reabsorbed into his ever-expanding galaxy of polyrhythms. Papa’s got a brand new dimension.

The Impressions – “We’re A Winner”

(#1 R&B)

As Lauren Onkey wrote in her fantastic recent piece on the R&B hits that surrounded the assassination of Martin Luther King, the poise of “We’re A Winner” can’t help but sound out of place with the moment’s sadness and anger. But, as Onkey notes, the unintentional ambivalence of the call doesn’t preclude its power as a response. “How did these confident lyrics feel on April 5 or 6?,” she asks, “Bitter? A call to the future?” The answer, of course, is both, and these two impulses aren’t contradictory. Indeed, in the hands of the brilliant Chicago ensemble and songwriter Curtis Mayfield, “We’re A Winner” is warm and tender love song to a community in the throes of both triumphs and tragedies. Bathed in gospel assurance and freedom-song insistence, offers – in Onkey’s words – offered both “comfort” and a “way to express mourning.”

Gladys Knight and the Pips – “The End of Our Road”

(#5 R&B)

A similar ambivalence exists for Gladys Knight as she confronts a new reality. If her previous hit “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” found Knight wrestling with how to move forward in a failing relationship, she’s found her answer here. Over a house-rocking background, Knight mixes the existential awareness that “every road’s got to end somewhere” with the personal certainty that – thanks to a negligent partner – this road ends now. With the discontent that fueled the moment’s political assertions just barely under the surface, Knight and the Pips call for a clean break now that truth has made reconciliation impossible. All that’s left is to call Tyrone and move your shit to the left, to the left.

Buck Owens – “How Long Will My Baby Be Gone?”

(#1 Country)

Buck Owens sounded perfectly at home in the rising paisley dawn of country-rock, both because his Bakersfield Sound helped set its paradigm and because he so expertly tweaked his expectant twang and rumbling, guitar-driven arrangements to answer the rockers who bowed in his direction. As with so many of his great records, Owens’s delivery and bopping rhythms act as counterpoint to the longing and desperation of his lyrics. Here, with a steel guitar weeping in the background, Owens’ famed vocal hiccup is the throat-catching well of tears.

Percy Sledge – “Take Time To Know Her”

(#6 R&B)

Even at his most open-throated, Percy Sledge’s voice always sounded trapped, bound up in the middle of the achiest Muscle Shoals arrangements and in the eye of soul music’s many emotional storms. Here, he sings from the center of a tragic tale of faded love and bad decisions, where Sledge’s failure to heed generational wisdom has left him on the wrong side of the dark end of the street. With simmering horns riding alongside Sledge through the swells, the only hope for Sledge’s protagonist is that he learned his lesson.

Loretta Lynn – “Fist City”

(#1 Country)

Speaking of lessons that you should’ve learned, Loretta Lynn already warned you. She told you that “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man),” an earlier hit that preludes and presages this badass firecracker. Over a tightly-wound arrangement that bursts open in the chorus, Lynn smiles and blesses your heart before she reminds you that – although she’s confident that her man wants nothing to do with you – she has two insurance policies in case she needs to take care of business by herself. Lynn’s signature wordplay and badass honky-tonk kick offer a soundtrack to what might happen when the Coal Miner’s Daugher stops being polite and starts getting real.

Jerry Lee Lewis – “Another Place, Another Time”

(#4 Country)

After a decade of fame and misfortune, Jerry Lee Lewis’s first in a decade-long run of Country hits calls out to other places and other times beyond the lovelorn memories that he cried over in this stately ballad. He looks back to his rock ‘n’ roll ‘50s – where he recorded hopped-up covers of Hank Williams and Ray Price – and ahead to the smooth country ‘70s, when he wrapped his leather-bound voice around a compelling series of honky-tonk classics. Looking backwards and forwards, inward and outward, Jerry Lee Lewis waits and watches in a manner that’s not dissimilar to fellow genius Otis Redding, even as their sounds remain only partially connected through the shared subtext and sonics of the country-soul that took root in places like the Memphis they both called home.

In the sound of 1968, it seemed like everyone was seeking new worlds.

Simon & Garfunkel – Bookends

Simon & Garfunkel – Bookends

Released April 3rd, 1968

1968 was very good to Simon & Garfunkel. Between the soundtrack to The Graduate (released in January) and Bookends, they topped the Billboard album charts for an astonishing 16 straight weeks. The breakout film also propelled “Mrs. Robinson” to the top of the charts and later to the Grammy for “Record of The Year.” Released in April, Bookends documents the duo reaching the height of their artistic powers and basking in both popular and critical acclaim. This compelling album straddles the line between experimental ambition and pop song-craft, illustrating each anchor (or perhaps bookend?) of the duo’s abilities and interests.

In one sense, Bookends is two EPs mashed together as one long-player. The first side is a song suite that (loosely) discusses the life cycle from birth to old age, featuring a range of sonic textures that fragment form and unsettle expectations. Disruptions include “Save The Life of My Child,” which shatters the placid opening of a brief “Bookends Theme” overture with synth buzz, trilling background vocals, and an oblique sample of their earlier hit “The Sound of Silence” buried deep in the mix. Even more daringly, they break up the flow of songs to include “Voices of Old People,” a spoken-word track that further destabilizes any reliance on familiar pop cues. Conversely, the B-side – which gathers up songs recorded as far back as 1966, many of which had already been chart hits – gloriously revels in those same pop cues, whether the Everly Brothers strut of “Mrs. Robinson” or the garage stomp of “A Hazy Shade of Winter.”

But the division between the sides isn’t as stark as it initially seems. The song cycle has the melodic richness of the hit singles, particularly the string-driven ache of “Old Friends” and the soaring sway of “America.” Meanwhile, in the fractured whimsy of “At The Zoo” or the sound effects that intrude onto “Fakin’ It,” the second side infuses its AM gold with the unsettling weirdness that imbues the earlier l, more obviously conceptual material.

Unsurprisingly, their vocals become a primary tool in bridging this divide. Beyond the playful verses and open-hearted choruses of “Mrs. Robinson” or the slow-boil frustrations of “Fakin’ It,” they are particularly effective in using the interplay between unison singing and close harmonies to create dynamic and even dialectical counterpoints. This approach – in which their heroes the Everlys specialized – reinforces the promise and uncertainty of the young lovers in search of “America,” where Garfunkel occasionally flies into the distance away from Simon at the end of phrases. Or the way that Garfunkel’s descanting bridge swoops in over Simon’s subdued lead line and thus recreates those lovers’ growing separation on the many-mornings-after reckoning of “Overs.”

The two sing together on the album’s summary statement. Closing the first side’s reprise of the “Bookends Theme,” they draw up around a hypnotic circular lyric: “Time it was, and what a time it was, it was.” In its specific context, it’s an evocative call to hold onto the memories of a life that now has mostly passed. On a wider scale, particularly given Simon & Garfunkel’s massive 1968, the phrase proves a fitting encapsulation of Bookends’ strange visions and enduring power.

Best tracks: “America,” “Mrs. Robinson

 

 

Guest Post – The Merle Haggard Songbook: A 1968 Playlist by David Cantwell

Hey everyone, I’m thrilled to turn things over today to my brilliant friend David Cantwell. David is the author of two absolutely essential books, Merle Haggard: The Running Kind and Heartaches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Songs (which he co-wrote with Bill Friskics-Warren). His essays and reviews have appeared in outlets including The New Yorker, Rolling Stone Country, and Slate, and he was a frequent contributor and Senior Editor at No Depression. David is the 2017 recipient of the Rolling Stone Chet Flippo Award for Excellence in Country Music Journalism, an honor he richly deserves. There is no better guide us through this pivotal year for Haggard, his songs and his collaborators. Take it away, David…

Merle Haggard released three albums in 1968: Sing Me Back Home, The Legend of Bonnie & Clyde and Mama Tried. Those title-tracks—each a Haggard original, each a country chart-topper—cemented a proto-outlaw persona that at this point in his career had mostly been expressed only in his recordings of other people’s songs, most indelibly by Liz and Casey Anderson’s “The Fugitive.” Prison-centric and country-rocking, “Sing Me Back Home” and “Mama Tried,” in particular, reframed his career. For one thing, many if not most listeners would assume from here on out that whenever Merle cut a song they didn’t already know, he must have written it—and must surely be autobiographical, as well. This has been an understandable though frequently mistaken way of hearing Merle Haggard ever since.

For another, “Sing Me Back Home” and “Mama Tried” both quickly appealed to roots-appreciating rock stars, as well. The Byrds, in Sweetheart of the Rodeo-mode, played “Sing Me Back Home” on the Grand Ole Opry in March; the Grateful Dead included “Mama Tried” in their storm-shortened Woodstock set the summer of ‘69. Merle’s appeal to those beyond the country audience would be ongoing, as well. “Working Man Blues,” “Silver Wings,” “Hungry Eyes,” “Okie from Muskogee,” “If We Make It through December,” “Big City,” and “Kern River,” just to name a few, were all still in the future.

But because we know so well where Haggard was headed in his career, it’s easy to overlook a key early achievement. By 1968, at least within the world of country music, Merle Haggard was already a major figure. Indeed, 1968 was a watershed year for Haggard, not only because of his own iconic hit singles but because he became one of the most-covered songwriters in country music. In 1968, M.  Haggard songs were cut, dozens and dozens of times, by a who’s who of country stars.

Merle Haggard died two years ago on his birthday, April 6; he would have turned 81 last Friday. In honor of those anniversaries, and in order simply to document how his work was embraced by both the Nashville and Bakersfield country scenes, I’ve put together a 36-song playlist of nothing but other artists doing Merle Haggard songs…all of them released in 1968.

The appeal of Haggard’s early songwriting to so many other country singers is perhaps easier to appreciate when we note that Haggard actually released a fourth album in 1968: The Best of Merle Haggard. Merle’s first “greatest hits” collection became a “greatest hit” in its own right. It climbed to #3 on the country album chart, a better showing even than Legend and Mama (Sing Me Back Home, which Charles essayed here in January, went to #1). The Best was also the first Haggard album to be certified “gold,” a commercial peak scaled in part because it stuck around the album chart for so long after debuting in August, 36 weeks, which was a full two months or more longer than any of his three other ’68-released albums.

Though Merle had only been charting for less than half a decade, his label, Capitol, already had a lot of hit material to round up for country music’s “greatest hits” buyers. The Best of Merle Haggard included all of his Top Ten singles from 1965’s “(All My Friends Are Going to Be) Strangers,” another Liz Anderson song that gave his band its name, through “Sing Me Back Home,” which topped the country charts in January, and a few lesser hits besides. Haggard wrote most of them. Now-classic drinking songs “Swinging Doors” and “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “I Threw Away the Rose,” as well as the genuinely autobiographical “Branded Man,” were already on their way to becoming country standards. In the playlist you’ll find multiple versions of all of these Hag numbers, from Porter Wagoner and Norma Jean, Buck Owens and Tommy Collins, George Jones and Conway Twitty.

Merle had written so many great songs in these early years, in fact, that they couldn’t all possibly be released as singles, so other artists snapped them up. I especially like Bonnie Owens’ version of “Somewhere Between,” my pick for best Merle song never to be a big hit, but you’ll also find 1968 take on Merle’s “Life in Prison” (by the Byrds), “Wine Take Me Away,” (Tommy Collins), “All of Me Belongs to You” (Norma Jean), and quite a few more.

Because it had only just been released, one especially important early Merle composition isn’t included on The Best of Merle Haggard. “Today I Started Loving You Again,” co-written by Merle and Bonnie Owens, was the B-side to Merle’s “The Legend of Bonnie & Clyde.” Through the years it’s been recorded approaching 100 times now, by artists of just about every genre imaginable, from blues to reggae, from soul to punk and jazz and pop. It was embraced more or less instantly by country artists, who show up on this playlist doing the ballad no less than eight times. As his own career-long history of covering other people’s songs proves, Merle well understood one of the ways country worked at the time: When lots of artists are all singing the same songs, it both reinforces a sense of community while also pushing each act to emphasize his or her individuality by creating a distinctive, in-the-style-of performance.

In 1968, the songs it seemed as if every country act was singing were written by Merle Haggard.

(To hear all the songs mentioned here, check out David’s Merle Haggard 1968 Songbook playlist on YouTube.)