THE 5TH DIMENSION: THE AGE OF AQUARIUS (1969)
1) Aquarius / Let The Sunshine In; 2) Blowing Away; 3) Skinny Man; 4) Wedding Bell Blues; 5) Don'tcha Hear Me Callin' To Ya; 6) The Hideaway; 7) Workin' On A Groovy Thing; 8) Let It Be Me; 9) Sunshine Of Your Love; 10) The Winds Of Heaven; 11) Those Were The Days; 12) Let The Sunshine In (reprise).
If there was at least one good influence that Hair made on the musical world (outside of its social impact — making parents finally shed a tear for their hippie kids and all), it came in the form of a serious improvement of The 5th Dimension's fourth album over their third one. Not that anybody really gives a damn in 2017, but, on the other hand, the band's cover of ʽAquarius / Let The Sunshine Inʼ is pretty much the only thing that the average customer these days might remember about the band in general, so at least there's that. Obviously, Hair and The 5th Dimension were made for each other, and here, the band commits to the experience one hundred percent, with soaring vocal harmonies and brass fanfares blaring Ennio Morricone out of the sky, while Billy Davis Jr. pulls his finest son-of-a-preacher-man impression on the ad-libbed part of ʽLet The Sunshine Inʼ — with an energy level easily matching that of Otis Redding (in fact, it would not be impossible to mistake him for Otis on this one).
If it were just the single, though, we'd have to count it as a fluke; surprisingly, the entire album is significantly more consistent than Stoned Soul Picnic, which probably had to do with the band and Bones Howe retaining the best of their songwriters and firing the worst ones (yes, we're sort of looking at you, Jeff Comanor). The best remains the best: there are two more Laura Nyro songs here, brilliantly sung by the band's female vocalists — ʽBlowing Awayʼ is upbeat soul-pop at its catchiest, funnest, and most powerful, while ʽWedding Bell Bluesʼ mixes that upbeatness and melodic optimism with a streak of sadness and yearning (it is, after all, about a girl losing hope of ever getting married), and Marilyn McCoo's vocals on both songs do full justice to Laura's originals (Marilyn is clearly more powerful and disciplined than Nyro, but that does not mean these are just technical, soulless renditions — she clearly understands Laura's messages, and is as perfect and loyal an interpreter as Laura could ever get).
Predictably, they are less successful when tackling genres they don't really know what to do with: while Cream's ʽSunshine Of Your Loveʼ cannot lose all of its sexy menace as long as the main riff stays relatively intact, it is obvious that the only thing this band and this production team can do with it is water it down — which they do, with happy harmonies, more of those brass fanfares, and a silly conga-driven break in the place of Clapton's solo. It made even less sense to put it near a bombastic, Vegas-style arrangement of ʽLet It Be Meʼ (I wonder if Billy Davis Jr. had to wear a rhinestone suit in the studio to properly get into character?), though, perhaps, not as little sense as ending the album with a cover of a cover of a cover — it was not enough that Mary Hopkin got herself a hit with ʽThose Were The Daysʼ after Gene Raskin had converted it from an old Russian gypsy-themed romance, no, the song also had to get a 5th Dimension seal on it (then again, it's personal here, since I hate stereotypical Russian romances and drinking songs with the same passion that is usually reserved for intellectual Yankees hating stereotypical country music).
Still, misfires aside, there's a surprisingly large number of cool tunes here even beyond the title track and the Nyro covers. Michael and Ginger Kollander's ʽSkinny Manʼ is a chunk of charming bubblegum pop with intricate call-and-answer vocals between the boys and the girls in the band. Rudy Stevenson's ʽDont'cha Hear Me Callin' To Yaʼ has a tense, resolute Latin groove (stylistically similar to Santana's ʽEvil Waysʼ, even though that song had not yet been released at the time). The only (but obligatory) Jimmy Webb cover, ʽThe Hideawayʼ, is a Randy Newmanesque Tin Pan Alley-ish family pop number that avoids Jimmy's sentimental excesses, even if its vocal hooks leave something to be desired. And as much as I am supposed to despise Neil Sedaka, I cannot deny that ʽWorkin' On A Groovy Thingʼ is a really well-written pop song, even despite sharing the subliminal message of rejecting intercourse before marriage ("let's not rush it, we'll take it slow" — yeah right, how about singing this with special guest Grace Slick on parallel lead vocals for extra sincerity?).
Subsequently, even if there are no signs whatsoever here that the band was somehow aware of changing musical fashions circa 1969 (and maybe that's a good thing — imagine Bones Howe trying to pull a Jimi Hendrix or a Led Zeppelin on us!), at least The Age Of Aquarius could not help but get pulled into the overall mega-healthy vortex of whatever was going on, when even thoroughly commercial songwriters, about as rebellious in nature as the local tax inspector, sometimes produced musically challenging and tasteful material. Oh well, just a very good year on the whole, and for The 5th Dimension in particular — thumbs up, with the usual minimal reservations here and there.