Crafty stuff, this. Further sweetening The Mamas & the Papas’ style by toning down the folk-pop and cranking up the jazz-pop proved a quick recipe for success, even scoring a hit with a bloodless take on “Go Where You Wanna Go”. Problem is, the vocals are squished into a flat sound reminiscent of 50s jingles—hardly fitting company for such splendorous accompaniment. Strange as it is, the instrumentation is where I find the most solace, since the powers that be were kind enough to bestow a chunky bass presence. But when the tempo cools and the bubbles settle, I find myself dying for a singer of Dionne Warwick’s caliber (“Misty Roses”).
Having supplied The 5th Dimension with their breakout hit, Jimmy Webb takes songwriting and production duties, steering the group through a romantic arc (couple falls in and out of love) that outstrips their debut to a staggering degree.
First, the voices are much freer. Instead of being squashed into a one-dimensional (heh) slab, they sound like actual people with lives outside of TV Land; so when Webb presents them with intricate counterpoint and gentle atmospherics (most of side A), they fly/shimmer/glisten/all the hackneyed language we use to describe the best aspects of sunshine pop.
After an odd Beatles cover details the breakup with raucous soul groove and too-measured vocals, side B starts with the aftermath. Building up from a dark snare echo and bass pattern, “Requiem: 820 Latham” dons layers of strings and organ as the singer’s grief grows into a dramatic showing reminiscent and worthy of Four Tops. I’d love to give credit to the lead, but I can’t find proper personnel credits. Just know that here and on “The Worst That Could Happen”, he gives Levi Stubbs’ brand of widescreen angst some damn fine competition.
Elsewhere, muted trumpets and melodies worthy of Bacharach and David drift by with maximum class (“The Girl’s Song”), and our protagonist unravels into an unnervingly chipper isolation (“Paper Cup”)—certainly a lot of ground covered since the title track’s fanciful imagery.
Throughout it all, The 5th Dimension and jimmy Webb reveal themselves to be perfect collaborators. The lack of a smash single may have doomed The Magic Garden to be a short-lived union, but given the combination of melodic lift, harmonic intricacy, and utter panache in execution, it’s a might pretty chunk of vocal pop.
Two songs in, the thinned-out vocals and resultant hollowness get under my skin, so I check the production credit: Bones Howe. Of course. He all but destroyed The Association with extreme vocal panning and chattering arrangements, so it makes sense that the psychotically overactive “I’ll Never Be the Same” is his doing.
Nothing here’s disastrous, though; just tame. The Magic Garden‘s adventurous harmonies and limber execution have been pruned as much as Webb’s involvement, since it seems he was shown the door after no successor hit to “Up, Up and Away” materialized. That’s just speculation, granted, and I’m quite happy for The 5th Dimension striking big with the title track; I just wish they hadn’t gone back to sounding like stiff killjoys.
More ornate harmonies, more female leads, and arrangements that make passes at soul are all Good Things. Radio-vice gripped melodies and voices, though? Decidedly not.
For four songs, this is their best material in a few years, alternating between sharp soul and Warwick croons—neither getting their feet crossed in rigid phrasings. But after “A Love Like Ours”‘ melodic stasis, the group gets stuck in ungainly swings and sociopolitical rousings that are never as urgent as they need or try to be.
(Hopefully) aware that tidy politicism wasn’t going anywhere, The 5th Dimension retreat to safety: a batch of the most simplistic melodies of their entire career, further spoilt by untold levels of shrill vocal drip.
The horrid cover suggests otherwise, but this is the least confining their harmonies have been since The Magic Garden, and the soul/gospel touches are executed with reasonable competence. Still, level-headed vocals can’t save this from benign anonymity—no matter how preferable to prior pop binds.
They did it. They actually did it. Heaven knows I thought The 5th Dimension wouldn’t capitalize on the last album’s momentum, but for the first time since The Magic Garden, they’ve put together an LP worthy of their talent. Nothing here is really new, it’s just that, between the less egregious double-tracking and the more nuanced arrangements, these hooks shine. I’m especially partial to the pop-soul: “Ashes to Ashes” (a windy reminiscing) and “Day by Day” (a joyful hymn) both lay into some pretty supple grooves. Even the ballads, so commonly a source of overreach, exude composure (“There Never Was a Day”).