Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Dust Off Those Grooves (Chapter Eleven) The 5th Dimension and Jimmy Webb's Magic Garden

After supplying The 5th Dimension with some of the biggest hits early in their career Jimmy Webb joined creative forces with the band; writing, producing and arranging this fantastic and inventive album from 1968.
A commercial failure upon initial release THE MAGIC GARDEN is now rightly considered to be The 5th's Dimension's greatest moment. The album features the best examples of the sublime vocal work and harmonies the band were known for as well as some of the most potent examples of Webb's early lyrics and production.
The album opens fittingly with PROLOGUE which features the group harmonizing with the line, "Have you tried Love?" before quickly moving into the majestic title track that promises a magic garden that, "will make you feel free". Typical sixties stuff but Webb's production and odd arrangements raise this way above the typical and lyrically he soon begins to subvert the listener's expectations.
SUMMER'S DAUGHTER features an incredible vocal performance by Billy Davis Jr. and it introduces us to the mysterious muse like character Susan, who at least in this track appears to be heaven sent. The oddly titled DREAMS/PAX/NEPENTHE introduces the first signs of darkness that will overtake the album with it's weird sitar refrains and creepy Marilyn McCoo and Florence LaRue harmonies. The flower child Susan suddenly has, "Cobweb shadows all over her face like lacquered lace".
The strength of THE MAGIC GARDEN is in its willingness to not deliver what the listener expects which is perhaps why it failed so miserably upon its initial release. The opening tracks flowery sixties vibe is totally destroyed by the bizarre and quite astonishing CARPET MAN.
CARPET MAN sounds more like a shoegazer track from the nineties than a piece of typical sixties pop. It would have been right at home on album like SPLIT by Lush. The song chronicles the Muse's Susan control and downright cruelty to her lover. When Webb throws out a line, "She'll say come to the wedding and of course you do and then the groom and her will have a dance on you. She walks all over you, you know she can, you're the carpet man", we realize that this magic garden isn't the place of peace and love we thought it was.
The next track is the sound of the record company freaking out. The cover of TICKET TO RIDE is jarring but also not all together inappropriate. It does remain the band's one concession to the nervous executives who were going to have to try to see this album to 1968 audiences. It also features each vocalist absolutely belting the Lennon and McCartney classic in impressively vicious over the top way.
The album's masterpiece and one of Webb's most tortured compositions starts out side Two. REQUIEM: 820 LATHAM is The 5th Dimension's greatest moment and one of the most stirring and soulful songs I have ever heard. It's near suicidal lyrics are given one of Webb's most startling arrangements with a potent bass line that is just underneath one of the most beautiful string arrangements the man ever came up with. Billy Davis Jr. delivers one of the most extraordinary vocal performances of the decade on this track and the startling, "I'm still alive", line is chill inducing. Richard Harris would record a typically over the top version of this track on his great MY BOY album but this remains the definitive reading of one of Webb's most complex and moving compositions.
REQUIEM gives side two a lot to live up to but Marilyn McCoo's sweet vocal delivery on THE GIRL'S SONG is a perfect follow up. It is fitting though that we aren't sure at this point if we are listening to the mysterious Susan's plea or just someone else that she has run over.
THE WORST THAT COULD HAPPEN is the album's most famous cut, as The Brooklyn Bridge would deliver a soaring version of it in 1969 and have a major hit. It's debatable as to what the definitive reading is but the deep soul Dimension original is lovely stuff and it's hard to believe that it wasn't one of their major hits.
ORANGE AIR is, along with CARPET MAN, the most vicious and progressive cut on the album. The back and forth male/female vocals add an apprioately schizophrenic feel to it and Webb's strange horn arrangement makes it even more chaotic sounding.
The off kilter PAPER CUP was the biggest single off the record even though it has lines like, "Everyone says I'm quite insane and my life is going down the drain and I don't care". The song's celebration of not-feeling foreshadows the shoe-gazing movement that I mentioned earlier and it's not hard to imagine Kevin Shield's My Bloody Valentine covering it.
EPILOGUE closes the album with the same, "Have You tried love", line that opened the record but it's no longer a question. The magic garden of the sixties was getting ready to turn into something as isolated and cold as Webb's destroyed lead character.

THE MAGIC GARDEN failed to even crack the top 100 and it sidetracked one of the sixties most unique groups. They would recover with more hits but they would never reach the majestic heights of this album again. It would slip in and out of print and has become one of the sixties great lost classics. It stands as a reminder to a time in popular music when risk was a top priority, it is hard to imagine a writer or a band today going as far out as this album does.

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