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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The 5th Dimension: Earthbound

THE 5TH DIMENSION: EARTHBOUND (1975)

1) Earthbound Prologue / Be Here Now; 2) Don't Stop For Nothing; 3) I've Got A Feeling; 4) Magic In My Life; 5) Walk Your Feet In The Sunshine; 6) When Did I Lose Your Love; 7) Lean On Me Always; 8) Speaking With My Heart; 9) Moonlight Mile; 10) Earthbound Epilogue.

See, sometimes it really helps to be patient. After a set of four nearly identical, nearly identically lackluster records dominated by subpar material, during which period the commercial relevance of The 5th Dimension steadily dropped down to near-zero level, one last attempt — caused, per­haps, by events beyond their control rather than a conscious change of image — nevertheless, one last attempt was made to return the band to their bubble-psycho-lite roots. It was made at the wrong time and in the wrong way, but it was made, so that succeeding generations of listeners like myself could at least partially redeem them for their sins.

Big changes here indeed: a new record label (ABC) — Bones Howe getting tired of his protegés and leaving them to concentrate on Tom Waits — and, most importantly, Jimmy Webb returning, not only to take his place as producer but also as dominant songwriter: as if in compensation for all the years he'd been missing, he now writes a whoppin' half of the album for them, just like in the good old days! And the rest of the songs? Still covers from outside songwriters, but no more of those mediocre hacks and Bacharach adepts: we have such highly unusual choices as the Beatles' ʽI've Got A Feelingʼ, the Stones' ʽMoonlight Mileʼ, and even such a classy underrated selection as George Harrison's ʽBe Here Nowʼ from the Living In The Material World album. Plus, as an additional oddity, they cover both the A-side and the B-side of the last single released by the obscure American prog rock band Gypsy: weird choice, sure, but I guess that Webb just thought, "well, we have to do something contemporary, but none of that sentimental crap they'd been regurgitating on those past albums... oh, I guess this will do nicely".

In addition, they have a completely new backing band: no more relying on the professionalism and good taste of the Wrecking Crew, but worth it, perhaps, for a brand new sound, significantly dependent on synthesizers (played well, with a «cosmic / acid» vibe rather than adult contempo­rary overtones) and talented individuals such as guitar wiz Fred Tackett, most commonly associa­ted with Little Feat, and jazz master Larry Coryell, hired to play acoustic guitar: his presence is immediately felt on the dazzling speedy runs he plays on ʽBe Here Nowʼ — the song itself rolls along at its original slow tempo, but Larry's fussy, funny fretwork gives it an original lively angle that shows this new incarnation of The 5th Dimension has finally remembered what it actually means to introduce a fifth dimension to the four of the original work.

Do not get me wrong: Earthbound is not some sort of unjustly forgotten masterpiece. It is a Jimmy Webb conceptual album, and Jimmy Webb is not a genius. But it is a genuinely interes­ting record that dares to take chances — such chances as this band had not taken for at least five years. The cover of ʽI've Got A Feelingʼ is excellent, because the Beatles' number was a ready-made energetic R&B workout, and Billy Davis Jr. does it full justice here, even if the ladies' talents are strangely underused (the perfect thing to do would be to have them sing the "every­body had a hard year" part, contrasting with Billy delivering the main verses). ʽMoonlight Mileʼ, unfortunately, loses all of its Stonesy magic in transition — it is so deeply rooted in its «redemp­tion from the sins of a rock'n'roll lifestyle» context that few people other than the Stones them­selves could ever appropriate it adequately — but the band's soulful rearrangement is amusing and pleasant, and the girls' dreamy harmonies slide along like perfect butter for Billy to cut with his own vocal knife, if you'll pardon the metaphor.

The Gypsy tracks seem to be fairly rare (I have not heard the originals), but ʽDon't Stop For Nothingʼ is one of the steamiest, funkiest grooves this band ever did, with a gritty bass / guitar lockdown and all the back vocalists in a high-charged bayou-voodoo mood; ʽMagic In My Lifeʼ is a comparatively inoffensive R&B ballad that one could easily imagine as one of those Diana Ross / Michael Jackson duets, but at least it's got a fun quotient in it. As for the Webb tracks, four of them form a near-continuous suite and are, perhaps not so surprisingly, the sappiest of the lot: ʽWhen Did I Lose Your Loveʼ and ʽSpeaking With My Heartʼ are just as expendable as anything on their previous four albums, but ʽWalk Your Feet In The Sunshineʼ, even if it shamelessly steals its riff from The Who's ʽSubstituteʼ and its piccolo trumpet fanfares from the likes of ʽPenny Laneʼ, is an enticing slice of classic sunshine pop (okay, I just looked back at the title and realized I'm being grossly redundant, but what the heck), and ʽLean On Me Alwaysʼ is saved by Billy Davis, who injects as much passionate gospel soul into this stereotypically generic number as he is inherently capable of.

All of this (not always, but usually) successful diversity is framed by a pseudo-progressive wrapping in the form of the title track — a lite-classical piece, Moody Blues-style, but with a lot of attention predictably given over to the band's harmonies; as pompous and ceremonial as the composition is, it is really atypical of the rest of the album, which might be just as well, because I'd rather have this band engage in funky grooves, gospel soul, and sunshine pop than try their hand at progressive rock (and as late as 1975 at that!). But it does call to my attention the strange fact that on the whole, the album goes very easy on female vocals — the majority of the leads are by Billy Davis, and the male-female harmony schtick is severely underplayed, which is fairly weird, since Webb had never shown any signs of male chauvinism up to then. Strange as it is, Marilyn only gets one single lead part on ʽWhen Did I Lose Your Loveʼ, which wasn't even made into a single, breaking with the questionable, but well-established tradition. Well — perhaps they just wanted to try something completely different.

For all of the album's inevitable flaws (we know all about how this band and its producer could never be perfect, anyway), I give it an enthusiastic thumbs up — it is not every day, after all, that you can witness a formerly decent band rise from the ashes after so many years of bland medio­crity, and at a time when nobody could even begin to expect something of the kind. As a matter of fact, nobody did begin to expect anything of the kind, and after four commercially oriented records that flopped, it would have been foolish of them to expect a non-commercial (or, at least, not-so-commercial) record not to flop. Whatever the circumstances, this was the straw that broke the camel's fifth-dimensional back — Billy and Marilyn quit the band soon after its release to continue their career as a musical duo (for a short while) and as a family couple (for quite a long while: as of 2017, they are still together, probably setting a record for the longest-lived family couple in the world of pop music or something, God bless 'em). At this moment, the logical thing for the rest of the band would have been to pack it in; due to circumstances beyond logical control, though, this is where the strangest chapter in the history of this band actually begins.

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