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Class ?

Main Category: Folk Rock
Also applicable: Pop Rock, Roots Rock
Starting Period: The Psychedelic Years
Also active in: The Artsy/Rootsy Years


Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of a Lovin' Spoonful fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Lovin' Spoonful fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Postponed until the page is more comprehensive.



Year Of Release: 1965
Overall rating = 12

Where the Byrds do their thang with reverence, this bunch of Greenwichers gives us the giggles - the right ones!


Track listing: 1) Do You Believe In Magic; 2) Blues In The Bottle; 3) Sportin' Life; 4) My Gal; 5) You Baby; 6) Fishin' Blues; 7) Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind; 8) Wild About My Lovin'; 9) Other Side Of This Life; 10) Younger Girl; 11) On The Road Again; 12) Night Owl Blues.

I - my God-given brain, that is - understand why albums like these keep going out of print, with only a little chance of coming back again. Understand, but do not agree. True, ever so often the record may look like a deserving hit single-schmingle surrounded by dismissable, forgettable filler-whiller. And you just might get the temptation to treat the former as the candy and the latter as the contact info for the candy-maker. But would that necessarily be right? There's filler and there's filler, and if the band is even vaguely interesting to you, and its filler hasn't been forced upon it by cash-hungry producers, it creates context, nice fat context to put the hit single in. Yep, that's exactly what I mean: 'Do You Believe In Magic' just doesn't sound the same placed on a hit package as it does sitting here next to 'Blues In The Bottle', much like the F-word sounds seriously different dependent on whether it is being followed by "you" or "me".

That little bit of textual linguistics aside, the Lovin' Spoonful have built their reputation on their hits, and that reputation could vaguely be described as that of a mild, cutesy 'psycho-folk' bunch of sissies. But in reality, their debut album adds many more different influences to the melting pot than that reputation would suggest, and they come out with a decidedly diverse 'n' delicious collection - nowhere near as groundbreaking as the Byrds' Tambourine Man, but just as, and maybe even more, exciting and immediately captivating. When the Byrds wrapped themselves in twelve strings worth of nylon, took on some heavy airs and began singing their song, they were great, but they were prophets; the Lovin' Spoonful, on the other hand, are hoodlums, and their approach to this hot new thing known as 'folk-rock' is anything but reverential. And that's right up somebody else's alley, isn't it?

All the songs on here are to be filed under SLIGHT. No deep spontaneous revelations; no profound significant messages; no angry social protest; and whoever that Zimmerman guy is, let's pretend he never existed. From this point of view, the album can't fail: no heavy gambling - no heavy loss. No major winnings, either, which is why the rating has such a hard time shooting past an overall 11. But no real 'filler' in the classic sense of the word as well. True, some of the bluesier tunes have naturally got much more predictable and familiar melodies than occasional "where-did-that-come-from?" pop anthems like the title track or the cover of 'The Other Side Of This Life'. But this blow is all but neutralised by, first, the rambunctious, goofy atmosphere that the boys create with so little effort, and second, the fact that they're always trying to put a little touch of their own on even the least audacious material.

Even the obligatory instrumental workout at the end of the album, 'Night Owl', is - by the standards of the times - quite a fabulous blues jam. Neither John Sebastian nor Zal Yanovsky have ever applied for the guitar god certificate, of course, but geez - the year was 1965, and Hendrix was still doing Little Richard's laundry or something. It was a period when a few tastefully placed guitar chords were the rightful equivalent of a bedazzling, technically stunning guitar solo three years on (cue "those were the days" flashcard). And besides, they're funny, these guys, when they're jamming - not dangerous, like the Stones, or bookish, like the Clapton-era Yardbirds. Reckless. Funny. Nonchalant. Dylan's guitar solo on 'Leopardskin Pillbox Hat' from next year sounds uncannily like the final fade-out chords of the 'Night Owl' guitar solo - maybe just a coincidence, but one that reflects the common purpose of these songs anyway: have yourself a rousin' good time, never worry about sounding too "clean".

But that was just to feed my point about how even the minor material can sometimes turn out to be of interest. Because in the long run, it certainly isn't 'Night Owl' that these guys will be remembered for - it's the abovementioned luminous pop stuff. Like, there's been gazillions of odes to the supernatural charms of Music as an Art Form written in the past fifty years, but 'Do You Believe In Magic' definitely ranks up there with the best of them (no matter how you might insist that the ultimate goal of all these songs was to prepare the ground for that masterpiece to end all masterpieces, 'Music' by Madonna). Today, it is practically impossible to say 'music is magic' without sounding trite, ignorant, and superficial. It wasn't that easy to get away with the phrase in the mid-Sixties either, believe you me. But somehow these guys did - maybe because what they're saying is so simple and disarming, unadorned by attempts to make the message sound more profound than it is.

I mean, it's such a cheerful, unpretentious, endearing little song; ridiculing it, in my opinion, would amount to dropkicking a harmless furry little kitten in the street just because it's the easiest thing around to dropkick. Besides, yeah, I do believe in magic - and I think the song itself got magic a-plenty, with the catchy vocal melody, the unforgettable 'do you - believe - like I - believe' backing vocals, the warm country guitar sound, and the friendly guitar solo. Plus, I tip my hat to lines like 'if you believe in magic, don't bother to choose/If it's jugband music or rhythm'n'blues': these guys are laying their eclecticism on the line even before you get to see it in action, and just how Sixties is that? And just how many bands these days are ready to tell you 'don't bother to choose'?

Fred Neil's 'Other Side Of This Life' is poppily arranged as well, but the vibe and melody are pure "folk", so it's one of those rare songs that actually do give the term 'folk-rock' a reason to exist. Sounds a bit like proto-Jefferson Airplane, and indeed, the Airplane later appropriated the song as well, making it into one of the highlights of their live show. This version, unlike the Airplane's, is short, up to the point, and perfectly shiny and optimistic, without any allusions to acid trips or anything dark and subconscious, and the guitar ring is exactly midway through the Byrds and the Beatles.

Checked "pop"; checked "folk"; check "blues" now, since that's in our ballpark, too. They didn't have to write 'Sportin' Life', but they had to give it style, and Sebastian gets an A from me for making his vocals sound tired, lazy, gentle and seductive all at once, as if he were predicting Ray Davies' attitude on Muswell Hillbillies half a decade later. Speaking of the guy, he's never been famous for an ocean wide vocal range, but where he lacks in hertz and watt, he makes up with theatrical talent, really getting to the bottom of every song he's recording; clearly, for Sebastian, vocal impression is every bit as important, if not more important, as instrumental backing. 'This nightlife, this old sportin' life, you know it's killing me' - I love how he filters that line through his teeth so that you get to know he really means it, on one hand, and that, no matter how much he means it, he still can't get rid of it, on the other.

Check "rock'n'roll" - 'My Gal' rocks as hard as anything... well, anything pop-oriented bands of the time could pass for rock'n'roll. It's not Who-level balls-out rock, of course, but it's good driving stuff all the same. The Spoonful never subscribed to the garage newsletter, but somehow they still manage to get a bit of that vibe by introducing dozes of nonchalance and rawness into their playing; there's nothing smooth and perfectly polished on this record, and the guitarists hammer out their chords with more passion than professionalism.

Guess I'll just have to mention everything else now - what can a poor boy do once he's caught up in a web of eclecticism? 'Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind' has a cute jazz-folk feel to it, with a purry little organ carrying forward the melody and a weird way of doubletracking the vocals. Catchy. 'Wild About My Lovin' and 'Blues In The Bottle' are pretty much the same song, but it's fun to see how the same song can be supported by different guitar tones and different ways of reconstructing the same blues line. 'You Baby' is not just Motownish, it's Phil Spectorish, as the band attempts to build a wall of sound without using bricks - getting very much the same effect that Phil used to get but saving a lot of money in the process. 'Younger Girl' is an acoustic ballad with completely unpredictable melodic and mood changes throughout, displaying non-trivial songwriting talent. And no record like this one can get away without a little bawdy pub-rock; that niche is nicely filled with 'Fishin' Blues', loud and cheerful enough to scare away all the fish for miles around. Which is all too well, because isn't fishing more like an empty pretext to have yourself a good time in the first place?

Generally speaking, this isn't the Lovin' Spoonful's finest hour. The songwriting, in particular, is only beginning to bloom; more than half of the material is "traditional", and, although Sebastian's pop instincts are already at the height of their sharpness, it's basically "quality without quantity". But in terms of "vibe" - and, just as importantly, in terms of freshness of the vibe - this just might be their finest hour. In fact, chronologically speaking, this is the first FRIENDLY album in the history of pop music that I have ever heard. Before Do You Believe In Magic, rock and pop music either exorcised your demons or provided life support for your angels, but it wasn't really addressing the "simple person" in you. These guys just treat you like your equals. The companionship, the DIY spirit, the light, unforced optimistic take on things, the warmth of spirit, the jokes and the irony, it's all there. I just can't imagine anybody not wanting to make friends with this record - and honestly, I would probably be scared shitless meeting up with anybody who'd proclaim to actually hate it.



Year Of Release: 1966
Overall rating = 10

They relinquish some of their good sides and concentrate on some of their mediocre sides. BASTARDS!

Best song: DAYDREAM

Track listing: 1) Daydream; 2) There She Is; 3) It's Not Time Now; 4) Warm Baby; 5) Day Blues; 6) Let The Boy Rock And Roll; 7) Jug Band Music; 8) Didn't Want To Have To Do It; 9) You Didn't Have To Be So Nice; 10) Bald Headed Lena; 11) Butchie's Tune; 12) Big Noise From Speonk.

Not as good as the predecessor. I mean, no Lovin' Spoonful album is groundbreaking or mind-blowing, but there are Lovin' Spoonful albums that have this 'normal music' stuff at the top of the boys' game, and then there are just good albums. Daydream is just a good album. When I glance at the track listings or try to sample the albums in my mind, I get an intuitive picture of Daydream concentrating more on the guys' upbeat'n'rockin' image and less on the quiet introspective stuff; and even when there is quiet introspective stuff, it's not the kind of really subtle songwriting like 'Younger Girl', but the kind of lush dreamy atmospheric songwriting that, er, uh, occasionally reeks of early Sixties schlock ('Didn't Want To Have To Do It' is really pretty, for instance, but a bit cheesy, too).

There's some real filler on here, indeed - none of it annoying or offensive, but some of it unmemorable. This, of course, doesn't relate to the title track, which is unquestionably both the best and the most well-known song of the album, a true classic of the genre that has ever since been appropriated by numerous jazz masters. Did it inspire Paul McCartney for 'Good Day Sunshine'? Possibly so, and I'd have a hard time to tell which of the two actually conveys the feeling of a warm lazy sunny afternoon (hey Ray, skedaddle out of here! I didn't mean to bring you in!) better. Maybe I'd even have to give the props to Mr Sebastian, but then again, I'm not really much of a pro when comparing two similar great tunes, nor would I want to pretend to be one.

That's about the only great tune on the album, but you know, if the Lovin' Spoonful were known for filling all their albums with great tunes, they probably wouldn't have had to wait so long before their reviews appeared on this site. So once we just speak of good songs, I'm pretty fond of such nice heartwarming country shuffles as 'It's Not Time Now' and 'Butchie's Tune'. There's nothing memorable about them, but there shouldn't be. Supposedly this is the kind of stuff Mike Nesmith has been playing all his life since he left the Chimpanzeas: generic catchy fast friendly ditties.

Generic blues-rock this time is restricted to a hilarious cover of 'Bald Headed Lena', with the boys themselves not able to restrain from occasional bursts of laughter and apparently having a good time, but I guess the track could as well have been thrown together in ten minutes to fill up the sacred twelfth place on the album. Gotta love the gurgling sounds in the instrumental passage - how did these guys manage to shove a mike down their throats without throwing up? Of course, there's also the obligatory closing instrumental pretentiously called 'Big Noise From Speonk', but... ehh... at least 'Night Owl Blues' gave us some really nifty guitar playing, this one just gives us some cute harmonica breaks. Would you take nifty harmonica over nifty guitar?

More silliness comes in the likes of 'Jug Band Music', a song that has exactly the same melody as Lynyrd Skynyrd's 'Gimme Three Steps', although it's apparent that the Southern redneck bros never really ripped that song off the Lovin' Spoonful (what a conundrum, hey hey). Neither that song nor the anthemic 'Let The Boy Rock And Roll' really seem to go somewhere special, though, so I guess we'll just leave them be.

Anyway, the only songs I'd love to salvage on a C-90 from this album, beside 'Daydream' and the frolicking country tunes, would probably be 'There She Is', a fine and solid pop rocker in its own rights; 'Warm Baby', a beautiful half-blues, half-soul number distinguished by wonderful acoustic trills and Sebastian's sly falsetto on the chorus; and yet another dreamy ballad, 'You Didn't Have To Be So Nice', a song that would certainly do justice to the Dave Clark Five. A lot of justice, enough to fill the Supreme Court, I guess.

Of course, by now you already have realized how shitty this particular review is, but take pity on the reviewer, there's nothing more hideous to review than an album completely devoid of original ideas but featuring emotionally active songs at that. (And just you wait till I get to J. J. Cale. You'll be sorry you got your Internet connection). Were this a Grand Funk Railroad album, I could have at least demonstrated you my knowledge of Anglo-Saxon expletives; were it a Bob Dylan album, I could have concentrated on dissecting the lyrics; were this Abbey Road, you would at least by definition be knowing the songs I'd be talking about. This one's a totally dead case, though, hey, the album's out of print, even, and that's not a particularly bad thing, but nothing good about it, either. NO! I just can't imagine my future life without 'Jug Band Music' or the throat rinsing in 'Bald Headed Lena'. I give the album a strong 10 and kinda lament and grieve at the fact that a band that did 'Do You Believe In Magic' and 'Daydream' just couldn't afford itself a tiny wee bit more of creativity and quality control.



Year Of Release: 1966
Overall rating = 13

As good as an album of "humming" ever gets. Don't underestimate the powers of humming.

Best song: 4 EYES

Track listing: 1) Lovin' You; 2) Bes' Friends; 3) Voodoo In My Basement; 4) Darlin' Companion; 5) Henry Thomas; 6) Full Measure; 7) You And Me And The Rain On The Roof; 8) Coconut Grove; 9) Nashville Cats; 10) 4 Eyes; 11) Summer In The City.

I'm no astrologer, but I do understand the simple pleasure of taking a particularly swell turn of events and ascribing it to a particularly fortunate star position. It's a rare thing when everything clicks so well, runs so smoothly, locks so tightly, whatever. Of course, although neither am I much of a Buddhist, there's also ample reason for believing that utmost joy is necessarily followed by utmost sorrow - otherwise it would be hard to explain why the pretty colourful house of the Lovin' Spoonful began crumbling into dust something like months after the release of their best album. But for a brief moment, the stars were shining, the birds were singing, and a very young Peter Buck was being woven a fortune to proclaim this record as one of the most underrated art works of the Sixties almost forty years after its original release. And we all know Peter Buck is never wrong, so I have some strong artillery to back me up here.

It's not like I'm inviting anybody to hold his breath or something. This is the Lovin' Spoonful, and that means slight, fluffy, harmless, non-rebellious, seriously derivative folk-pop - not even psychedelic by any means, although how come these guys never got into psychedelia by late '66 is anybody's guess. There are no technological breakthroughs on here; no religious inclinations driving the artist towards creating Art with a capital A; no enigmatic lyrics to be examined with a thesaurus and a formal linguistic model; and not even a single sidelong jam dedicated to the idea of being a rock. If you think that there can possibly be no records rated that high that do not possess even a single one of these merits, there's really no use for further reading; I don't want to raise anybody's hopes too high, only to receive predictable letters like "George promised a masterpiece, but this is just generic folk-rock! What was he smoking?".

Well, nothing. Neither was John Sebastian, when he finally decided that his songwriting was mature enough to cut short the traditional cover phase and stuff an entire record, from top to bottom, with the production of his personal artistic vision. Now I do think that John was never really much more than a good songwriter - not a boundary-breaking genius. But one of the usual problems with good songwriters is that they often mistake themselves for great ones, and once that happens, you start getting the wrong stuff from the wrong people, as if somebody hired a guy constructing slum buildings to finish off the Milan cathedral or something. Not so with John: he knew his limitations perfectly, at least on the band's third album he did.

To make that clearer, let me give a timing example here. What I consider the best song on this album - '4 Eyes' - is also the longest song on this album, clocking in at a monstruous 2:53, no less. What I consider the (relatively) worst song on the album - 'Henry Thomas' - is the shortest song on it, not exceeding 1:44. Usually, according to my practice at least, it's the other way round. But on Hums, each and every song is so perfectly adequate that it runs for exactly as much time as it is supposed to, not one second longer or shorter. Even the overall length of the record, and it's almost drastically short (27 minutes), is appropriate: humble goals, humble running time.

In addition to that, the album is chockful of classic tunes: at least three big hits by the Spoonful are here, and at least one or two other songs have been reworked into hits by other artists. And in addition to this, every single one of the "minor" numbers has its own unmistakable face, to be described with glee, wonder, and occasional reverence. And in addition to this and that, some of the "minor" numbers are so goddang unpredictable that the very fact of their coming from such a presumably predictable band as the Lovin' Spoonful is worth extra praise.

Take my fav, '4 Eyes'. First of all, it's pretty heavy for the boys, fuzz bass, crunchy rhythm guitar and all, quite mean in attitude, showing that they could rock out in a "dangerous" way after all. But, more importantly, it's a song about the disadvantages of wearing spectacles. There's little doubt in my mind that John had an autobiographical motive on here; only a guy who actually did experience all that kind of shit (and I can partially identify!) could come up with a chorus as brilliant as 'Four eyes, what you gonna do now? / Four eyes, how much do you see now? / How many fingers? HA HA HA!', not to mention the hilarious (and painful, painful!) verses themselves. As a bonus, you also get Sebastian's ever-improving ability to twiddle around with song structure, here demonstrated by placing the verses and choruses in two different signatures - and glueing them together with no seams at all. As a second bonus, you get Zal's juicy slide guitar all over the place, including a brief poisonous solo on the fade-out, as if to place one more special accent on the sarcastic nature of the tune. If it wasn't this song that actually inspired the equally mean-spirited 'Spazz' by the Elastik Band a year later (coincidentally, John mentions the 'harness of elastic' in the lyrics as well), I don't know what was.

Well, that's the high point, but the low points aren't much lower. Figures of speech made me shit on 'Henry Thomas' a few paragraphs above, but I actually dig this little jugband groove and its silliest of silly uses of the recorder. I mean, what do you expect of a brief fast jugband groove other than maybe a little something extra like silly recorder puffs and goofy lyrics about what the cat dragged in? Likewise, what would one expect of a fast upbeat traditionally-oriented country-rocker? Other than being pleasant on the ear and having a hummable catchy vocal melody? In that respect, 'Darlin' Companion' is certainly not one iota worse than, for instance, 'What Goes On' on Rubber Soul, only the basic hook does not spell "what goes ooooooooooon", but spells "darlin' companion, come on and give me understandin'", and that's okay with this reviewer.

Then there's the hits, of course. The coolest thing about the hits is how different they are from each other. 'Rain On The Roof', here re-titled 'You And Me And Rain On The Roof', is a perfect example of Sebastian's "child-like sensitivity", and "child-like" is the word, not "childish" or "kiddie" by any means; as perfect a tender nursery rhyme as anybody ever penned. 'Nashville Cats' is a sincerely unanthemic anthem to you-know-what, and if somebody is getting ready to open his foul mouth and yell "how the fuck dare this wannabe country doofus assume that he's able to pay acceptable tribute to the Nashville greats?", he will be cut short in his tracks with honest, from-the-heart lines like 'there's thirteen hundred and fifty two guitar cases in Nashville / And anyone that unpacks his guitar can play twice as better than I will!'. I bet you anything the Nashville fellows appreciated it.

Then, finally, there's the band's biggest, the #1 smash thing 'Summer In The City'. That song confuses me quite deeply; most people call it 'a typical classy summer anthem' or something like that, when in reality the song is played in a grim minor key, and is easily the most desperate item in the generally optimistic Spoonful catalog. 'Don't you know it's a pity / That the days can't be like the nights / In the summer, in the city' is the general message, and although the nights seem to offer relief to the protagonist, it's the days that take over in the end - the powerful coda to the song is just a few meters ahead of "Depressville", you know. Not that I'm angry - on the contrary, it makes 'Summer In The City' a worthy companion to 'California Dreamin' when it comes to "mixed emotions", and further proof of the vast range of Sebastian's talents.

And I haven't yet mentioned 'Coconut Grove', a proto-Nick Drake song if there ever was one (Sebastian's vocals on this quiet introspective track could, in fact, almost be mistaken for Nick's) - and yes, that's a John Sebastian song all right, not David Lee Roth's by any means, even if it was nice of "Diamond Dave" to unearth this little gem. And I haven't yet mentioned 'Lovin' You', easily the catchiest and friendliest number on the album, and ending in a storm of bagpipes, no less. And I haven't yet mentioned the hilariously evil cackling of 'Voodoo In My Basement'. And I haven't yet mentioned the group's twisted vocal harmonies on 'Full Measure'... okay, maybe that little tidbit is the lonesome cowboy that doesn't really deserve mentioning, because, to be frank, I find that harmonization just a tad spiffy. They're trying something Smokey Robinson-ish with the song (which is why it's, like, the only tune where Sebastian does not sing lead vocals), but, although the melody is alright, that direction is sort of excessive. We already have a Smokey Robinson, and you won't outsmoke him.

Nevertheless, a few microscopic nitpicks do not amount to anything other than a couple extra lines of text. Do, however, keep in mind that it is quite possible that the "humble greatness" of this record will only jump out at you with repeated listens. It being so humble and all. That's the problem with 'lightweight' records - they sink in so much easier than 'heavyweight' ones, and it's all too easy to claim to "get" them upon first listen when in reality there's so much more charm and wit below the surface. Just my two hums, though.


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