THE ASSOCIATION: AND THEN ALONG COMES... THE ASSOCIATION (1966)
1) Enter The Young; 2) Your Own Love; 3) Don't Blame It On Me; 4) Blistered; 5) I'll Be Your Man; 6) Along Comes Mary; 7) Cherish; 8) Standing Still; 9) Message Of Our Love; 10) Round Again; 11) Remember; 12) Changes.
Just because someone generated the questionable idea of dressing The Association up in matching Beatlesque suits and thrusting electric instruments in their hands does not mean that, at any time during their existence, The Association would turn into something seriously different from a modern-day / Sixties-style barbershop quartet (actually, sextet). Arriving way too late on the rapidly shifting and fading sweet-folk-pop scene, they somehow managed to endure on a commercial high all through 1967 and early 1968 — then inevitably faded away together with their barber shop. Unlike the Beach Boys or the Zombies, their output has not survived the popularity time test, for understandable reasons. Nevertheless, like all good barbers, they, too, have certain advantages; at the very least, in the golden canon of the Sixties they deserve their own thick footnote, rather than just a brief comma-circled niche in a long list of complete good-for-nothings.
The Association's first album was released in mid-1966, produced by such a semi-legendary figure as Curt Boettcher, one of America's top sonic wizards in the «lush baroque pop» department (he used to work in close tandem with Gary Usher, one of the Beach Boys' original collaborators, and was also responsible for the sound behind such nice, unjustly underrated late-Sixties art-rock projects as The Millennium and Sagittarius). Considering that the band's two leaders, Terry Kirkman and Jules Alexander, tended either to write their own material or to rely on non-trivial songs written by outside composers, and had at least a few shreds of individual musical vision, there was, from the very outset, a strong chance of The Association forever changing the face of Californian pop music... or was there?
Certainly 'Along Comes Mary', the band's third single (the first, by the way, was 'Babe I'm Gonna Leave You', a version nowhere near as innovative as Led Zeppelin's, but fully holding its own ground in terms of soulfulness), is a damn fine tune. Most people dug it for the lyrics, one of the earliest examples of non-Dylan-derived complete incomprehensibility (so much so that it was, and still is, a common assumption that 'Mary' stands for 'Juana'), except for Leonard Bernstein, who actually raved about the tune's melodic structure — I wouldn't know about the technical stuff, of course, but the song is pretty complex, and has a little bit of everything: a propelling dance rhythm, a nicely dated fuzz guitar riff, vocals that go from angry pop to hazy psychedelic and back again, and even an unforeseen instrumental flute break, at a time when flute popularization by the likes of the Moody Blues or Jethro Tull was still quite low. Catchy, too.
This was almost immediately followed by the band's first No. 1, Kirkman's 'Cherish' — a song that actually conveys The Association's essence better than 'Mary' by ditching anything even remotely close to a «rock» sensibility and just playing along as a lush folk-pop ballad. Way too ornate and saccharine for my personal tastes, but impeccable as a fine piece of craftsmanship all the same, due to production values that could rival George Martin himself.
The remainder of the LP sort of grew around these two songs, perhaps a little faster than necessary, but then, in pure terms of quality, the band never really managed to beat this level anyway. If you are new to the band, but not to Sixties' West Coast sound altogether, you will have a great field day sorting out the influences: lots of Beach Boys and other vocal harmony groups, lots of Byrds and other folksy jangle bands, a little bit Lovin' Spoonful, a pinch of early Jefferson Airplane, etc. etc. For the most part, The Association plays it «soft» — 'Along Comes Mary' and Billy Ed Wheeler's harmonica-driven pop-rocker 'Blistered' is as heavy as it gets, which wouldn't even cover the mass of Hendrix's left toe — but it is the «soft» that emanates from merging teen dance music with intelligent folk influences, not Barbara Streisand-style «soft», meaning that the actual schmaltz quota is relatively low.
What is much worse is that neither Kirkman nor Alexander qualified as great songwriters — as nice and professional as the songs sound, they do not leave a lasting impression. 'Along Comes Mary', the one song that does, was actually written by one-song-composer Tandyn Almer, and the rest... uh. 'Enter The Young' opens the album on a funny anthemic note and with a good modicum of fuzzy punch, but it's no 'My Generation'; 'Your Own Love' sounds like something they could have stolen from under Roger McGuinn's pillow without paying attention to "P.S.: NOT TO BE USED BEFORE COMPLETION"; and even the album's dreamiest, psychedelic-est number, 'Remember', is based on just one melodic line repeated over and over again — a modestly haunting line, but one that should rather serve as a taste of better lines to come than be self-containing.
That said, Along Comes... The Association is still a fine record — like most of the records that were released in 1966 and made a point out of exploring new grounds and sounds. I do not see how it could be possible to fall in sincere love with its substance, but at least the form, this odd mix of San Francisco-style song-crafting with Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys production values, is definitely unique for its time. If you don't feel like listening to it, at least frame it — it's that good. Thumbs up, with respect. (And no, if you were wondering, not all albums made in 1966 automatically get their thumbs up. Wait until we hit all that vinyl wasted on garage LPs).
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