THE 5TH DIMENSION: THE MAGIC GARDEN (1967)
1) Prologue; 2) The Magic Garden; 3) Summer's Daughter; 4) Dreams/Pax/Nepenthe; 5) Carpet Man; 6) Ticket To Ride; 7) Requiem: 820 Latham; 8) The Girl's Song; 9) The Worst That Could Happen; 10) Orange Air; 11) Paper Cup; 12) Epilogue.
Hey, it's a mini-rock opera! Or, uhm, more like a «mini-sunshine pop musical». The 5th Dimension, as it turns out, were anything but unambitious — or, uhm, were made to seem anything but unambitious, since the one person whose ambitions really soar here is Jimmy Webb, writing all but one (guess which) song on the album and arranging them as a conceptual suite, where the first half is about a boy and a girl falling in love and the second half is about the boy and the girl falling out of love (so much for the overall «optimistic» image of the band — although, to be fair, even some of the formally saddest songs on here still happen to have a happy glow to them). Just so you do not ever forget this, the record is framed with the exact same motif in the ʽPrologueʼ and ʽEpilogueʼ, but if you attune yourself properly to the storyline, then the first lush vocalise of "have you tried love?" will seem enticing and seductive, and the second — formally exactly the same — will seem bitter and disillusioned. The magic of Jimmy Webb, ladies and gentlemen!
Musically, as is typical for Webb, the album is still a mish-mash of lushly orchestrated and richly harmonized ballads with bouncy-friendly, hook-filled pop songs. The ballads all sound like next door neighbors of ʽMacArthur Parkʼ, though shorter in stature and simpler in character — and not particularly memorable, except for the overall impression from the rich orchestral / vocal coating, be it more in the traditional standard way (ʽSummer's Daughterʼ) or in the baroque-meets-Indian way (ʽDreams / Pax / Nepentheʼ, with the obligatory, and slightly ridiculous, mix of harpsichords and sitars). ʽThe Worst That Could Happenʼ is the most notorious of these tunes, due to the smash hit version produced a little later by Johnny Maestro & The Brooklyn Bridge, but it is simply way too schmaltzy and pompous to be taken seriously (and I still cannot decide if the unexpected launch into Mendelssohn at the point where she's leaving him and marrying another is a smart musical decision or just a cheap corny move — possibly both); much better and more genuinely soulful is ʽRequiem: 820 Lathamʼ, with an appropriately requiem-like piano and organ arrangement and a passionate vocal performance from Billy Davis Jr. that is every bit as respectable as any major soul anthem of the era.
But it is probably the bouncy pop stuff that will remain in your head once the album is over — some delicious nuggets to be found here, particularly the singles ʽCarpet Manʼ and ʽPaper Cupʼ: the former is a fast, toe-tappy folk-pop number with a complex and dazzling male / female harmony arrangement (and quite an astute set of lyrics — sort of like a complete anti-thesis to the Stones' ʽUnder My Thumbʼ), and the latter is a slightly more plodding, McCartney-esque music hall number that offers to resolve the storyline with one of the most radiantly cheerful pledges of self-isolation and misanthropy ever: "and my life is looking up / from inside my paper cup" is sung with such a life-asserting Sesame Street intonation that you just got to know it's such a major relief that the damn bitch dumped the guy. (Not before he took his complete fill, mind you: rewind all the way back to the title track and read these lyrics carefully — "There is a garden / Something like the shadow of a butterfly... and darling, it belongs to me"... you do understand what is meant by «the magic garden», right? No? Then listen to this: "...the magic garden / Waits with all the gates wide open / And darlin', I'll be standin' just inside". Still not getting it? Okay, how about this: "It's so soft and warm / Behind those hedges / No hard edges". Now you'd probably have to be Tipper Gore to still not get it. Oh that Jimmy Webb, what a prankster.)
Oh, speaking of McCartney: everybody seems to hate the band's cover of ʽTicket To Rideʼ (apparently, a leftover from the Up, Up And Away sessions, but included here because it seemed to fit in with the album's theme) — I think, however, that it is as good as, say, Otis Redding's cover of ʽA Hard Day's Nightʼ or any such reinvention of a Beatles song as an upbeat R&B groove number. Sure, the exuberant brass, the ecstatic vocals on the bridge section, the revved-up harmonies, the whoo-whoo-whoos — little of this agrees with the melancholic nature of the lyrics, but then again, the Beatles' original wasn't exactly the epitome of doom and gloom, either, so I don't know what the deal is about, really. It's a tight, fun, rockin' cover — I'd at least take it over the slowed-down and genuinely gloomy (though also decent in its own way) version by The Carpenters. And besides, with all due respect to Jimmy Webb, it does feel nice to have his monopoly broken at least once by a superior brand of songwriting.
On the whole, despite the expectable proportion of cheese, The Magic Garden is interesting and creative even at its worst, and sonically enchanting at its best: if anything, the harmonies here are even tighter, denser, more head-spinning in effect than on the first album, and at least technically superior to The Mamas & Papas (who have plenty of songs like ʽCarpet Manʼ in their catalog, but have never been able to reach that level of vocal complexity and polish, I think). This means another thumbs up — with all due reservations — and also the end of the band's first and probably best stage, considering that from now on, Webb's role in their future would be seriously diminished due to his getting busy with his own career.