Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Take the Fifth

The 5th Dimension was basically a 60s sunshine pop vocal group that managed to outlast the "sunshine" trend and kept having hits into the mid-70s. They had 30 songs reach the Billboard Hot 100 between 1966 and 1976, in a wide variety of styles, but their biggest hit was something of a fluke: a medley of two songs from the musical Hair, "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In." The lyrics and to some degree the music was on the hippie-trippy side of 60s pop and they never really did anything else like it, even though it was their biggest hit.

I’ve always loved the group, and I own not only the CD reissues of their 60s album but also the 2-disc Up, Up and Away: Definitive Collection from 1997. But I am pleased to add this new 3-disc set, The Complete Soul City/Bell Singles, 1966-1975, to my collection, if for no other reason than it contains the single edit of "The Declaration" by itself as a 4-minute song and not as part of a 10-minute medley. But this set also gave me a clearer look at the career of the group from their non-hit beginnings in 1966 to the end of their chart hits in 1975.

In their first phase as The Versatiles (four songs included here), they were a generic Motown-type R&B vocal group, not bad but nothing special. When Johnny Rivers and Marc Gordon signed them to Soul City Records and changed their name to The 5th Dimension, the two men also changed their musical direction to what is often referred to as sunshine pop, not jangly enough for bubblegum but not lush enough for easy listening. They began having mid-chart top 40 hits, most notably with what became their signature song, "Up, Up and Away." Their arrangements, both vocal and instrumental, became more complex, and they recorded songs by two of the most well-regarded songwriters of the era, Jimmy Webb ("Up, Up") and Laura Nyro ("Stoned Soul Picnic," "Wedding Bell Blues"). Sometime after the huge success of "Aquarius" in 1969, perhaps because sunshine pop was falling out of fashion, they transitioned to a third phase, easy listening, with strings and slow tempos and saccharine romantic lyrics ("One Less Bell to Answer").

What I noticed listening to the singles (A-sides and B-sides) in order was how their vocal style changed. As The Versatiles, Billy Davis Jr. took the lead part, but through most of their sunshine phase, there weren't really traditional lead vocals; either singers took turns or sang in unison or, often, did both in one song ("Carpet Man," "Sweet Blindness"). There were exceptions—Davis on "Aquarius," Marilyn McCoo on "Wedding Bell Blues"—but it wasn't until the group's third phase, easy listening, that McCoo pretty much took over lead vocals ("One Less Bell," "Love’s Lines, Angles and Rhymes," "Never My Love") and the arrangements reduced the others to just backing singers. Those above songs are fine, and "Angles" is one of my very favorite 5th songs, but this was a definite move away from the 60s rhythmic sound to a lush orchestral feel, from interesting arrangements involving sitars and tack pianos, and sometimes a political message ("The Declaration," "Save the Country") to a more conventional sound.

The later songs also reveal clearly what a great singer McCoo is. Her creamy voice is on a par with Karen Carpenter's, and with different handling, she might have had a strong solo career, but that never happened. After his Versatiles songs, Davis never again felt as confident as an R&B singer, though his voice remained distinctive. The B-sides allow the other three (Florence LaRue, Ron Townson and Lamonte McLemore) to handle some leads and they're fine, but McCoo had the strongest voice, and strongest visual appeal, in the group. None of the B-sides are lost gems but a couple are of interest: "I Just Wanta Be Your Friend" has a loose War feel to it, and "Skinny Man" and their cover of "Feelin' Alright" are as good as any of the hit sides. I still think it's a shame that one of their strongest songs, Jimmy Webb's "The Girl's Song," wound up wasted as a burn-off single released by Soul City to draw attention away from their newer work on Bell Records. Generally, even their most cringe-worthy hits (like "Living Together, Growing Together") are worth hearing, though two of their last songs, "Ashes to Ashes" and "Flashback," are ones I'd skip next time around. Still, 2-1/2 discs worth of great music is a solid legacy for the group.
I would say that this is now the definitive collection of 5th Dimension music, but it's missing two strong songs from the earlier collection, "Orange Air" and "Time and Love." Plus, these are single mixes so most of them sound like mono, and a couple sound a bit muddy compared the album versions. So go ahead and splurge for this and for Up, Up and Away (which has since been reissued as The Essential Fifth Dimension.

No comments: