THE ASSOCIATION: THE ASSOCIATION (1969)
1) Look At Me, Look At You; 2) Yes, I Will; 3) Love Affair; 4) The Nest; 5) What Were The Words; 6) Are You Ready; 7) Dubuque Blues; 8) Under Branches; 9) I Am Up For Europe; 10) Broccoli; 11) Goodbye Forever; 12) Boy On The Mountain.
As much as Birthday can be over... appreciated by the connaisseur, not quite up to the mini-art rock masterpiece status it is assigned, so is the band's fifth, oddly eponymous, album somewhat overlooked in the annals. With the return of one-time lead talent Jules Alexander back to the fold, the band makes a fresh, concentrated attempt at refreshing and updating its pop sound, incorporating new influences and at the same time tempering any inadequate ambitions it could have nurtured on earlier records.
Eleven out of twelve songs are self-penned here (the twelfth is provided by producer John Boylan), with almost all of the band members turning in contributions, although Alexander gets the lion's share (five credits / co-credits), with Kirkman closing in second with three. Biggest news is that the band must have been in close touch with the evolution of the Byrds' sound: lots of banjos and pedal steel guitars are brought in to inject an element of «country-rock» (or, rather, «country-pop») — although the melodic structures generally still follow the old sunshine pop formula, and this offers The Association a nice chance at a synthesis all their own.
Travel no further than 'Look At Me, Look At You'. The opening oink-oinking of the banjo at first tricks you into visions of cowboys chasing turkeys, but pretty soon it is transformed into a sensitive, wonderously arranged nostalgic ode — how come Bernstein never got around to praising the intricate harmonies on this song? vocal-wise, it smashes 'Along Comes Mary' to tiny bits; the low / high exchange of "look at me — I'll look at you" alone is worth gold. Up it goes into The Association's very own Top 5, little doubt about that.
Actually, «nostalgia» — lyrics and sentiments-wise, not in the melody department — is the ticket for quite a few numbers on here, and it's one of those few sentiments that the band has really got a terrific knack for. Jim Yester's chivalrous folk ballad 'What Were The Words' and Alexander's baroque-pop ode 'Dubuque Blues' are quite different melodically, and rely on different atmosphere-setting instruments (steel guitar for the first, piano for the second), but both weave the same tender mood, feeding it with memorable vocal lines and tasteful arrangements.
Twice and twice only does the band try to go for something bigger: first, on the grand-sounding 'The Nest', envisioned as an anthem based on thickly overdubbed vocal harmonies, and then on the album closer 'Boy On The Mountain', envisioned as a four-minute mini-suite (buildups, crescendos, choral harmonies, weirdly processed guitar solos, pathos, the works). Predictably, just like on Birthday, it doesn't quite work like it's supposed to, because way more meat would be needed on the instrumentation to make it work. The harmonies, however, are still tops on both tunes — way better designed, I'd say, than their predecessors on Birthday.
In between, as usual, they throw on some lighter material — Russ Giguere's cute joke song 'Broccoli' (inspired by the Beach Boys' 'Vegetables', perhaps?), Larry Ramos' quirky dance number 'Are You Ready?', Boylan's upbeat pop throwaway 'Yes I Will' (nothing to do with the much better known Hollies song), etc., all nice tunes that do not linger long but always leave a good aftertaste. In fact, The Association flashes even less sap than 'Birthday': compared with 'Rose Petals, Incense And A Kitten', Alexander's 'Love Affair', this album's sugariest number, comes across as a tender-hearted, sincere hippie ballad with psychedelic overtones rather than a formulaic orgasmatron for depressed housewives.
Alas, the album only continued The Association's downward commercial slide — ironically so, since this soft, inoffensive style is still done with way, way more taste than a whole legion of Seventies' soft-rock albums that would very soon start cesspooling the charts. Apparently, in 1969, when «soft rock» could still be done well, the world was not yet ready for it. What it really needed, so it looks like, was the real high standard of The Bay City Rollers. Well, we all have to pay our dues sooner or later, and hopefully, my thumbs up can contribute, in their own tiniest of ways, to The Association being assigned the better fate of the two at the Last Judgement. (Unless God is gay, of course.)
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