THE 5TH DIMENSION: UP, UP AND AWAY (1967)
1) Up, Up And Away; 2) Another Day, Another Heartache; 3) Which Way To Nowhere; 4) California My Way; 5) Misty Roses; 6) Go Where You Wanna Go; 7) Never Gonna Be The Same; 8) Pattern People; 9) Rosecrans Blvd.; 10) Learn How To Fly; 11) Poor Side Of Town.
Although The 5th Dimension never had a proper artistic agenda of their own, they weren't exactly an «artificially marketed» group like The Monkees, either: the five members found each other in the early Sixties and had been operating as a Motown-style vocal group some time before they were spotted by Motown man Marc Gordon and self-made man Johnny Rivers. They were not songwriters, and they were not musicians — just three guys and two girls who found it inspirational to pool their vocals together in the old barbershop tradition, but also perfectly ready to adapt to modern times and fashions.
Having secured a managerial contract with Gordon and a recording contract with Rivers' small-scale Soul City label, the group's true stroke of luck was getting a very young and still largely unknown — ʽMacArthur Parkʼ was more than a year away — Jimmy Webb to oversee the recording sessions for their first album, including complete control of the arrangements and about half of the songs written by himself. The result, though ridiculed by many in the past and still ignored by many in the present, was unique: a psychedelic sunshine pop album from a group deeply rooted in soul, gospel, and R&B — basically, Afro-American music strained through a Mamas & Papas filter and re-converted back to Afro-American music.
In 1967, people with good taste scoffed at this stuff, and for a good reason: this «psychedelia-lite», totally timid and inoffensive and acceptable for parents and grandparents and housewives and hillbillies all over the country (they quickly became one of Ed Sullivan's famous bands, which is way more than you could say about the Stones or the Doors), sounded complacent, conformist, and corny even compared to the Mamas & Papas, let alone all the «sharper» outfits out there, from Hendrix to the Jefferson Airplane — nor did The 5th Dimension offer the loud and rowdy punch of genuine Motown. In fact, you could have hardly committed a worse crime in 1967 than borrow the superficial trademarks of newly emerging music and water them down to the level of «respectable family entertainment». Nevertheless, once again, time heals all wounds, and now that the revolutionary scent of the late Sixties has passed into the domain of ancient history, we can give the band a fair assessment based on certain, let's say, more «permanent» values of music-making.
As a matter of fact, Up, Up And Away, the band's debut, is a pretty good record. With a well-polished and perfectly coordinated bunch of male and female singers; a professional and tasteful backing of studio musicians, including many members of The Wrecking Crew such as Hal Blaine and Larry Knechtel; a talented young songwriter providing the bulk of the material; and a decent choice in covers for the rest of the record — really, the only thing that one could accuse The 5th Dimension of is an overdose of happiness and an aversion to risk-taking, and wouldn't these accusations sound sort of silly in the 21st century? Oh, and a few of these songs suck, too, but only a few of them — and it's not as if «filler-proof» were a defining feature of all the genuinely psychedelic masterpieces of the epoch, either (mumble mumble mumble Grateful Dead mumble mumble mumble...).
The band's first choice of a single wasn't particularly auspicious: a note-for-note perfect cover of the Mamas & Papas' ʽGo Where You Wanna Goʼ — a great song for sure, and one perfectly adapted for the purposes of The 5th Dimension, but somehow, the combined vocal powers of Florence LaRue and Marilyn McCoo were not enough to beat the combination of Michelle Phillips and Mama Cass for sheer power, and the only good that came out of this is that they actually did make a hit record out of the song, even as it attached the stigma of «Afro-American clones of the Mamas & Papas» to the band (not entirely unjustified). However, the second single corrected this obvious wrong, featuring an original P. F. Sloan composition, ʽAnother Day, Another Heartacheʼ — an equally perfect sunshine pop anthem with a cool male/female breakdown of the vocals and a wonderfully polyphonic coda ride (Al Casey's sitar-ish «eastern sounds» are quite gratuituously placed, though).
Finally, Jimmy Webb himself steps in with the title track, providing The 5th Dimension with their first and one of their best known programmatic anthems. Reducing the escapist and psychedelic ideals of the day to the so-innocent-I-could-just-puke allegory of riding "up, up and away in my beautiful balloon", it creates an atmosphere of almost Sesame Street-like cuddliness with all its strings, flutes, trumpets, and falsettos (heck, it was so cuddly that Bing Crosby himself would agree to cover it on his 1968 Thoroughly Modern album)... but whenever you're in the mood for some lukewarm cuddliness with a steady beat, few songs really beat this one for efficiency; I only wish fewer commercials would use it for their crass purposes, though I do admit it does sound like a ready-made commercial jingle from the start. Like that ʽI'd Like To Teach The World To Singʼ thing for Coca-Cola, you know.
Of the other four Webb songs here, ʽPattern Peopleʼ is a nice mash-up between a folk-rocker (verses) and doo-wop (chorus) with another complex, multi-layered vocal harmony arrangement that rivals The Mamas & Papas as well as The Beach Boys; ʽRosecrans Blvd.ʼ is basically a prequel to ʽMcArthur Parkʼ, with a similar multi-part structure and a similar sentimental message based on a toponym — only three times as short and not nearly as pompous; and ʽWhich Way To Nowhereʼ and ʽNever Gonna Be The Sameʼ are somewhat mediocre ballads, respectively male-led and female-led, that are mainly recommendable for the excellent musicianship, but aren't particularly memorable otherwise. On the other hand, they also cover two songs by the somewhat underrated Willie Hutch — ʽCalifornia My Wayʼ is clearly inspired and influenced by ʽCalifornia Dreamingʼ (the line "California here I come" even has the exact same modulation on "California" as it has in the M&P song), but is really an autonomous composition in its own right, combining melancholia and sunshine where the M&P song was all about melancholia; and ʽLearn How To Flyʼ (more songs about flying! more songs about flying!) is simply infectious, catchy, fast-paced pop that is quite impossible to condemn.
As they end the album with a respectful nod to the man who gave them their contract, Johnny Rivers — this time, they go smart and release a near-accappella version of ʽPoor Side Of Townʼ that allows them to show their strongest side without sounding like superfluous clones of the artists they are covering — I have to admit that, as lollypop-ish and bubblegum-ish all these songs sound to a pair of ears weaned on so much stronger stuff, almost all of these songs have a lot to offer: great singing, strong musicianship, catchy hooks, and, yes, a jet of corny happiness that is perfectly acceptable if it goes along with all of these things. So what if they got themselves named after a Byrds album without any solid proof that they were capable of going beyond the second dimension, let alone the fifth one? As long as we do not make the mistake of ranking them as equals with the major psychedelic artists of the time (just as we probably wouldn't want to equate The Monkees with The Beatles, unless only as a defiant hooligan act in the face of the critical establishment), Up, Up And Away deserves its thumbs up as securely as any well-meaning, well-written, well-produced cash-in on current musical trends that compensates for lack of originality or individual artistic message with honest skill and craft. Oh, there was plenty of such imitative acts in 1967 that genuinely sucked — but The 5th Dimension sure weren't one of them, not by a long shot.