So what if their love of Brill and past balladeers makes them squares? That just plays to their benefit.
Outside of some uptempo pop, The Association bring jazz-flecked moonlit rendezvous into the 60s, with a throaty, bewildered lead keeping the pathos grounded while psych dressing adds tonal depth to the luxury. Romantic processions should be a lot harder for stiffs to dismiss when there’s a tense fuzz guitar crouched in wait (“Remember”). And for every moment the flow falters on group-sung melody, there are three that elevate wordless voice to an almost sinful level of pleasure.
Make no mistake, dropping Boettcher from the producer’s chair was a bad call. His attention to stereo depth and detail fit The Association’s ensemble voice well, giving them a richness Yester doesn’t come close to.
That said, the group makes the switch to West Coast-style folk-pop successfully, thanks in no small part ot simple panache. Renaissance‘s songs and sound might be less plush than the debut’s, but a slow-burning drummer drives the harmonies to planes higher and more complex than before (“You Hear Me Call Your Name”). Of course, this newfound heat hasn’t completely replaced The Association’s calling card: decadent ballads that fan out for miles on end (“No Fair at All”).
Insight Out (1967)
You know, maybe I’m exaggerating. Maybe, under different circumstances and in mono, The Association don’t sound so lifeless, with attempts at Cool and Groovy vocals flaking off like your uncle’s dandruff (“Wantin’ Ain’t Gettin'”). But here in stereo, Bones Howe shunts the harmonies entirely to the left channel, decimating the intricacy so pivotal the group’s style.
Judging by the longevity of hits like “Never My Love”, it seems the producer made good on his mandate to steer affairs into more commercial waters. The flip side, of course, is The Association trapped in stiff, chintzy arrangements that lazily chase contemporary pop sounds while insulting your intelligence by repeating obvious hooks ad nauseum.
There’s none of their former subtlety, richness, or beauty—just cheap plastic and a dime-store Elvis (“Reputation”).
Can’t blame Bones any more. Though his vocal panning still gets under my skin, it’s far less egregious; and the arrangements aren’t nearly as oppressive or try-hard as the last time around, which places the bulk of this LP’s failures squarely on The Association. Maybe it’s Alexander’s continued absence, but too many tracks are simply dull, riddled with arbitrary transition, or (usually) both. Vocals aren’t helping much either, since Yester’s coochie-cooing and Bleuchel’s confusion are too distracting for backing hums to remedy.
This is awkward. Besides the elegant title track, there isn’t a single Association-sung tune I’d choose over Fox’s instrumental counterparts. His stuff is blankly pleasant in the typical soundtrack way, but contains enough trumpets, saxes, and organs for me to greatly prefer it to a Temptations knock-off (“It’s Gotta Be Real”).
As far as I can tell, Howe is gone and The Association have reassumed instrumental duties. That would explain the fat, weighty grooves that help them don a rootsy sound in keeping with the times (“Dubuque Blues”).
Where this album holds up best, though, are the tracks with a more familiar style. Moody ballads “Love Affair” and “The Nest” might be representative of their ongoing struggles with formlessness, but these songbirds haven’t sounded this comfortable with themselves since Renaissance. So I’ll take whatever minor glories I can get, even if they’re marred by the presence of macho-man chest-thumping (“I Am Up for Europe”).
Most enjoyable, “Broccoli” positions the group as prime inheritors of Beach Boys kookiness, right down to the vegetable fixation. Redundancies like “I eat it with my mouth” make for utterly endearing humor, too.
The Association’s previous album could’ve been either a last gasp or a new breath, given the fence-straddling between cozy past and rootsy future. As expected, then, Stop Your Motor doubles down on the pastures—hard—especially when a deep drawl entirely forgoes melody for scene-setting (“That’s Racin'”). Questionable claims to authority aside, the gambit never pays off. Because even when they temper their new stance with the usual pop sweetenings (which is often), reckless strings and trumpets blow the scope up to massive proportions, leaving a wheezing lead struggling to scale canyon walls (“The First Sound”).
So this seems to be the end of The Association, now trapped in tunes as apathetic as their vague notions of domesticity (“Bring Yourself Home”). Prior tracks like “Dubuque Blues” held promise for a second life as small-town groove-riders, but this? This is a surrender.