Your Sister’s (Record) Rack: Psychedelic Two-Fer!
This week we’re going to double up our reviews of old records and run a few more of these features than usual, all to help promote Record Store Day, which is Saturday. Independent record stores are dying on the vine, on this day (at least) go on out and show ’em that you love them by purchasing some vinyl. A few of us are lucky enough to live in a place where there are a handful of record stores – the one I’m going to on Saturday (Houston’s Cactus Records) is the place where I bought many LPs back in the 1970s.
I didn’t buy either of these albums at the record store, but I dug ’em up out of my big sister’s bedroom. She always was a dedicated follower of fashion, and once a pop group had a hit single or album she usually jumped on the bandwagon. So in many cases she has the album that came out after the big hit … which is pretty fascinating in itself, I guess.
Like today’s entry: II X II by the Cowsills, released in 1970. Many people consider this album to be one of the group’s finest, even though it was a so-called “experimental” album (which in those days, meant “psychedelic.”) You know the Cowsills: they were a singing family from Rhode Island complete with Svengali/manager dad, singing mom etc., and they’re best known for a handful of pop hits including “The Rain, The Park and Other Things” (1967), “Indian Lake” (1968), “Hair” (1969) and so on. They were the real-life inspiration for the TV series “The Partridge Family,” and they were actually going to play themselves on TV until the clan learned producers wanted to replace the singing Cowsill mom with actress Shirley Jones.
As with all pop groups, the gig got a bit old when the hits stopped comin’, and around 1969 everyone was listening to albums anyway. Now unlike the TV Partridges, the Cowsills could actually play their own instruments. Brothers Bill and Bob Cowsill wrote the bulk of the band’s material, which kind of fit a lightly rockin’ folk-rock groove. When it came time to record II X II, everyone in the band felt it was time to break away from the pop image with material that was a bit more mature and introspective. So here you go: the title song which kicks off the album, is a kind of sci-fi Utopian fantasy that puts the Noah’s Ark concept on a groovy starship going to another planet to start a new peaceful civilization, or something.
“Father” is a bit of sunny pop, and “Don’t Look Back” mines a bit of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young melodicism. “Signs” (not the hit by Five Man Electrical Band) tries to rock out with electric guitars while “Silver Threads And Golden Needles” takes the old Everly Brothers tune into Linda Ronstadt territory (for the record, she cut the song first – in 1969). Then we get to “The Prophecy Of Daniel and John,” which is this album’s “A Day In The Life.” Who knows that this is about, but it’s psychedelic lite.
The album didn’t spawn any pop hits and this would be the end of the line for the original run of the Cowsills. Although a number of reunions with varying lineups would take place over the next few decades, the Cowsills’ time in the spotlight had passed. Mom Barbara Cowsill and guitarist Bill Cowsill have died, and brother Barry died in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Susan Cowsill has had an ongoing solo career and was a member of the Continental Drifters and the Psycho Sisters with former Bangle Vicki Peterson. Peterson, by the way, is married to Susan’s brother John, who plays drums with the Beach Boys.
Our next entry in the pop-group-gets-freaky derby is Save For A Rainy Day, the 1966 album by sunny surfsters Jan & Dean. You know their story, too: “Ride the Wild Surf,” “Surf City,” “Little Old Lady From Pasadena” and of course, “Dead Man’s Curve.” And you know about genius songwriter/producer/Brian Wilson wannabe Jan Berry, who crashed his car in a 1966 accident and suffered brain damage and paralysis.
While Berry was recovering from his accident partner Dean Torrence valiantly tried to maintain the group’s presence on the music scene, and he cut the concept album Save For A Rainy Day without Berry. Actually Berry was still in a coma when Torrence cut the songs for the album, all of which had a “rain” theme. The songs are linked together by the sound of rain showers – groovy! Dean enlisted the cream of the L.A. studio crop, including Elvis’ guitarist James Burton and keyboardist extraordinaire Larry Knechtel.
Despite the rainy theme, the songs are pretty sunny and poppy, recalling the Beach Boys’ output from roughly the same era (post Pet Sounds). “Yellow Balloon,” written by Torrence and Gary Zekley, is a nice forgotten bit of 1960s pop that links the surf sounds and psychedelia more successfully than the Beach Boys ever did. “Balloon” is followed by another perfect bit of California pop, “Here Comes the Rain,” written by Torrence all by himself.
You gotta hand it to Dean – he was in amazing voice for this record and for the most part you can’t fault the singing or playing here. It’s perfect, almost too perfect, like a springtime California day. The song choice isn’t quite as impeccable: a plodding cover of John Sebastian’s “Rain On The Roof” is rough going, with Torrence turning in a nasally vocal that would make Mike Love proud. With Berry still on the mend, Torrence enlisted Jan’s brother Ken to pose for the album cover. But when Berry came around he didn’t like the result and although one single was released (“Yellow Balloon”) the album became a limited-edition item available only on the Jan & Dean private label.
At least it was, until the late 1990s when oldies reissue kings Sundazed Records released a new version of Save For A Rainy Day on CD. The package included a lot of alternate takes and oddities, and a bonus EP with the gem “California Lullaby” a Torrence-penned song cut and released before the Rainy Day sessions with Jan Berry’s participation.
Despite his crippling injuries, Jan Berry attempted a number of comebacks, both solo and with Dean. The duo would perform regularly until 2004, when Berry died. Torrence still performs occasionally as part of the Surf City All-Stars and probably wonders why he and his former partner aren’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Me too.