BEE GEES: CUCUMBER CASTLE (1970)
1) If I Only Had My Mind On Something Else; 2) I.O.I.O.; 3) Then You Left Me; 4) The Lord; 5) I Was The Child; 6) I Lay Down And Die; 7) Sweetheart; 8) Bury Me Down By The River; 9) My Thing; 10) The Chance Of Love; 11) Turning Tide; 12) Don't Forget To Remember.
In the long run, most people probably do not even remember that the Bee Gees split in 1969, since the «disarray» period only lasted for one year. During that time, Robin released a solo album (Robin's Reign) that had its moments, but still flopped, becoming a collector's item, while Barry and Maurice carried on for a while as a duo (firing Colin the drummer for completeness of effect), then went their own ways, too — all of that over the course of one mad year, before the pangs of brotherly love took hold once again and the gap was re-bridged.
Had that all happened a decade, maybe even half a decade later, we probably wouldn't mind at all. But time passed at a different rate in 1969-70, and the split caused the band to «lose momentum». It is debatable if the Bee Gees were really a «major creative force» in 1967-69, what with all the derivativeness and all that subconscious passion for schlock — but I still tend to think that they were; at the very least, they had talent to burn, ideas to explore, and ambitions to satisfy. With the passing of the band's original incarnation, the talent remained, but the will to explore and develop quickly faded away. Now that the age of «soft-rock» and «contemporary folk-pop» and the Carpenters and the Eagles and America and Bread and legions, legions of them were sprung from the traps, it was clear that, without an additional effort, the Bee Gees would be swept off by that wave — and in the wake of the split, it was all too easy.
The original slide happened here, on this heavily disappointing album released as a «soundtrack» to a TV special that Barry and Maurice took part in — named after one of the songs on 1st, the mini-movie featured the two brothers rollicking around in medieval garb and engaging in various silly, senseless activities: to some extent, this was their own equivalent of Magical Mystery Tour. It also gave the girls a nice chance to see Barry in prime quality medieval tights (alas, no codpiece), although, for some reason, the album sleeve designers preferred to capture them in a state of getting ready for the tournament.
However, the fantasy setting was rather inadequate for the music — there is no attempt here whatsoever to pull an «Amazing Blondel» and deliver a set of pseudo-medieval compositions with lutes and mandolins. Instead, Cucumber Castle is just a collection of lush pop ballads, some of them with a strong roots-rock undercurrent (gospel, soul, country), others presented in the plain old easy listening style. Absence of Robin means fewer and thinner harmonies — when the remaining brothers do harmonize, it gives you a chance to better understand the importance of Maurice for the band, but most of the vocal melodies focus on Barry burning that torch on his own, slowly, meticulously, and not always convincingly.
Truly, this could have been a much better album if Barry and Maurice bothered to write more songs like ʽI.O.I.O.ʼ or even ʽThe Lordʼ. The former is a simple, but refreshingly upbeat folk-pop ditty crossed with some calypso elements, and it has one of those choruses that you first hate for painfully sticking to some of your memory cells, then, eventually, learn to live with in a balanced emotional state. The latter is an equally simple and equally upbeat country-pop anthem with a tinge of earthly humor — the brothers proving here that it is not that difficult for them to write quality cotton-fields material.
And that's about it: only two out of twelve songs are not straightforward ballads. The other ten songs clearly indicate that, from now on, the Bee Gees target their charm at bored housewives first, and everyone else last — a very strange decision in an age that also bred intellectual singer-songwriters (who could score it with the college chicks) and glam-rock stars (who could score it with the other chicks), but if that's what your heart and mind desires, well... anyway, from a purely technical point, this does not necessarily mean that the songs will all be bad, but it is a nasty blow for the reputation all the same.
Now that they no longer feed a grand vision, the only thing to separate a «decent» ballad on Cucumber Castle from a «crappy» one is the presence / lack of a particularly impressive vocal twist. I have to confess a mild passion for the gospel-anthemic ʽBury Me Down By The Riverʼ, even though the melody sounds like one of those you think you've heard a million times before; the broken-hearted love ballad ʽThen You Left Meʼ, which, if anything, may impress by the sheer number of vocal nuances and overtones with which Barry can inflect its endlessly repeated title; and the seemingly Pet Sounds-influenced ʽI Lay Down And Dieʼ, which probably has the most «adventurous» arrangement on the album — unfortunately, the song's rather ceremonial, «neutral» mood does not quite match the tragic lyrics, so that ultimately it sounds hollow compared to what influenced it in the first place.
Everything else just kind of slips through the fingers — and the memory cells. The acoustic folk of ʽMy Thingʼ, with brother Maurice singing lead, is unbearably fluffy (not even Sir Solo Paul McCartney could allow himself to sing a chorus of "bowzey wow wowzey", although he came close several times in his career); the orchestrated country ballad ʽSweetheartʼ would later be covered by Engelbert Humperdinck ('nuff said); and the final three songs I cannot bring myself to remember even after a half dozen listens.
Overall, despite the small handful of decent-to-good songs, this is a decisive (if not hateful) thumbs down — not only in the overall context of the band's career, where it represents a crucial turning point, but without that context as well: the songwriting is lazy, the diversity is minimal, the depth is non-existent, and, since this is neither a Monty Python session nor a casting session for Ivanhoe, the chainmails are unforgivable. Oh well, at least we do not get to see Brother Robin sporting one — the wimpiest of 'em all, he would have looked particularly miserable.
Check "Cucumber Castle" (MP3) on Amazon