THE 5TH DIMENSION: STONED SOUL PICNIC (1968)
1) Sweet Blindness; 2) It'll Never Be The Same Again; 3) The Sailboat Song; 4) It's A Great Life; 5) Stoned Soul Picnic; 6) California Soul; 7) Lovin' Stew; 8) Broken Wing Bird; 9) Good News; 10) Bobbie's Blues; 11) The Eleventh Song (What A Groovy Day!).
The worst thing that could happen to the 5th Dimension was Jimmy Webb beginning to pay more attention to his own career — or, for the time being, to the career of Richard Harris, whom he'd enriched with ʽMacArthur Parkʼ in early 1968, as well as all the other songs and production work on his first album, at the expense of his former pets. The only Webb composition on the band's third album is roughly tacked on at the end under the title of ʽThe Eleventh Songʼ (because, you know, nice sunshine pop albums are supposed to contain even numbers of songs, but we did need a Jimmy Webb seal of approval, if only at the very last moment), and it is an obvious quickie throwaway — "what a groovy day it turned out to be, doo-doo-doo" is its only line, and coming off a generally disappointing record, it has a strong whiff of self-parody, which is pretty bad for a band that often already comes across as parodic in its very nature.
The 5th Dimension are completely in the hands of Bones Howe now, the by-default sunshine pop producer of the era, already noted for his work with The Association and now working his tepid magic on these guys — but he is nowhere near as adventurous as Webb, so out go the sitars, for instance, and all that pseudo-Eastern crap, and in goes even more brass and strings than there used to be. Theoretically, this is no big deal: it's not like Webb was particularly innovative or subtle in his use of sitar, and it's not as if Howe's idiom for the band results in completely different textures and atmospheres. What is worse, however, is the sore lack of good songwriting: with Webb largely out of the picture, Howe and the other industry people are forced to fall back on even more cuddly and safe brands of corporate songwriting.
Worst of the bunch is a guy called Jeffrey Comanor, contributing pompous Neil Diamond-ish crap (ʽIt'll Never Be The Same Againʼ) and hookless folksy mush that tries to mask melodic paucity with lush flute-and-chime panoramas (ʽThe Sailboat Songʼ); he is equally bad at upbeat pop-rock (ʽLovin' Stewʼ, which has nothing to its name except for the strong tempo) and dream balladry (ʽBobbie's Bluesʼ — pretty male-female vocal harmony arrangement, but hardly ever elevated above the level of background muzak). Bob Alcivar's and Denny McReynolds' contributions (ʽBroken Wing Birdʼ and ʽIt's A Great Lifeʼ) are equally boring.
The saving grace of the album are two songs by the still relatively little-known Laura Nyro — ʽSweet Blindnessʼ and the title track, both of which had already managed to come out on Laura's own Eli And The Thirteenth Confession by the time The 5th Dimension got around to releasing their interpretations. These should probably be found worthy even by major fans of Laura: ʽSweet Blindnessʼ capitalizes even deeper on the contrasts between the slow and fast parts of the song than Laura's original, and the vocal duo of Florence and Marilyn add extra (and quite welcome) muscle to the joyful Motown-ish punch of the original, bringing it closer in style to something like Martha & The Vandellas. Likewise, they add extra funkiness to ʽStoned Soul Picnicʼ while managing to preserve its fussy spirit, a mix of psychedelia and gospel that makes the song equally interesting to fans of the Lord and lovers of the Grass. The ridiculous thing about it is that somehow, Laura Nyro material here goes interspersed with Jeff Comanor material — imagine some honest-to-good interpreter covering a mix of Beatles and Monkees songs (and I like the Monkees, but that would be irrelevant in this case).
The third and last single from the record was ʽCalifornia Soulʼ by Ashford & Simpson, a song that is definitely better than any of the Comanor stuff, but I still do not like it too much: it's another tune that is clearly influenced by ʽCalifornia Dreamingʼ way too seriously, and didn't we already have ʽCalifornia My Way?ʼ Here, it's like half of the vocal lines were lifted directly off the Mamas & Papas masterpiece — rather pitiful.
All in all, a major disappointment, although I still won't turn the album down explicitly because of the excellent Nyro covers and the fact that the vocal performances and arrangements are still complex and at least «beautiful» on a perfunctory level. Nevertheless, you're much better off just picking out the individual highlights here, due to the total lack of consistency.