THE ASSOCIATION: BIRTHDAY (1968)
1) Come On In; 2) Rose Petals, Incense And A Kitten; 3) Like Always; 4) Everything That Touches You; 5) Toymaker; 6) Barefoot Gentleman; 7) Time For Livin'; 8) Hear In Here; 9) The Time It Is Today; 10) The Bus Song; 11) Birthday Morning.
In retrospect, Birthday is hailed today by a small cult following as The Association's starkest attempt at putting forth something serious, a record that would impress on the musical level, bite on the lyrical one, and, overall, increase the public's confidence in the band at a time when, for once, the fluffy people had to share the chart spotlights with the fair people. Inspired, perhaps, by sharing the Monterey Pop Festival stage with such giants of the mind as Country Joe & The Fish and Hugh Masekela (not to mention various forgettable rag-tag entertainment like Jimi Hendrix or the Who), the six-man-band toughened up their act, brushed up on the songwriting, came up with lyrics that honestly tried, in simple ways, to answer some questions on life and death — and expected the record-buying public to like it.
The public did like it, by inertia, but nowhere near as much as it liked Insight Out, halting it at #23 compared to its predecessor's #8. Can't really blame them — I do not like it as much as I like Insight Out, either. The band's biggest problem was that they tried to get more pensive and complex, indeed, but without any accompanying stylistic changes. If Insight Out was mostly lightweight, easy-roaming pap, Birthday is pap that asks to be paid attention to. That's fine by me, but where's the payoff? Attention is not something you should simply give away without expecting an adequate reward, and Birthday's reward, I am afraid, is inadequate.
The band does try hard. Saccharine level is soaring only on the ballad 'Rose Petals, Incense And A Kitten', and even that song, with its loud jazz-poppy bassline and somewhat strange lyrics (and in 1968, where there are strange lyrics, one always begins to suspect trippiness, even if the song is firmly rooted in Streisand territory) could work bizarro magic on a generation that was, after all, open-minded enough to accept even Astrud Gilberto as a sample of «cool». The only other straightforward love song is — technically, at least — a first-rate lush-pop creation ('Everything That Touches You', the album's top ten hit), even though its lushness sort of masks the lack of a firmly clinging hook.
The rest ranges from meaty-beaty, friendly power-pop ('Come On In') to Manfred-Mann-ish quirky, rhythmically tricky pop (Larry Ramos' 'Like Always' that never seems to know whether it wants to waltz or shuffle along; 'Hear In Here') to magical-mystical Femme Fatale anthems ('Toymaker') to odd attempts to cram a mini-suite into three minutes à la Brian Wilson ('The Bus Song') — all of this topped with the calculated audience seduction 'Time For Livin', a song that drips jovial, starry-eyed optimism from each single note as it strolls along.
Somehow, someway, you expect it all to morph together into the band's big, self-assured answer to Sgt. Pepper, but it never does. Never mind that by 1968, the art of answering to Sgt. Pepper could be considered obsolete and, as conventional wisdom goes, audiences were expecting «tougher» stuff. The first six months of 1968 on the Billboard charts were dominated by Magical Mystery Tour, Simon & Garfunkel's soundtrack to The Graduate and Paul Mauriat — quite a decent setting in which Birthday could easily fit in.
None of the songs — not a single one — can qualify as a masterpiece, and an approach like this begs for at least one masterpiece around which the lesser, supportive material could freely cluster and «atmospherize». Insight Out did not set the stakes that high, and worked almost ideally well on its own level: moderately complex, unassuming pop for the rocking man to put on before bedtime. Birthday begs for acceptance on the part of a more raffinated social sphere, and is rightly rejected that acceptance; if one is happy enough with one's Beatles, Kinks, Beach Boys, and Pretty Things, this album will not add much to the perspective.
Of course, there is always the possibility of clearing one's brain of all these considerations and just liking the album for its individual songs, not for its failed «statement». All of the songs are at least pleasant — and 'Time For Livin' deserves a steady place on any sunshine pop retrospective — and God forbid you from denying a thumbs up to a record just because it did not quite live up to elevated expectations. Whatever be the case, it is undeniably one of The Association's strongest offerings. Who knows, one might even build up a successful case on the basis of the band holding its very own against an onslaught of new trends, fighting off psycho-rockers and housewives with the exact same verve.
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