(Written by Roland Pike)
These are the death throes of Motown’s unloved and little-remembered country subsidiary, Mel-o-dy Records; the label would be shuttered in three weeks’ time, with just one more release left after this one.
Despite – or perhaps because of – the lack of future prospects for the label, a decision which must surely have been telegraphed throughout the company (though perhaps not as far as Dallas, where Al Klein had turned Mel-o-dy into something approaching his own independent Texan fiefdom), they kept unearthing new acts.
For a label whose 1964 release schedule had turned into a seemingly endless series of records by Howard Crockett, Bruce Channel and Dorsey Burnette, and nobody else, this was a strange move. Two of the three final Mel-o-dy singles were by brand new acts, artists who’d never had a Motown release before (and, as it turned out, would never have one again); we met Dee Mullins a few weeks ago, and now here’s the Hillsiders.
All of which had me bracing myself for the worst, if I’m honest. I mean, even when the Mel-o-dy label was supposedly in rude health, none of their sides since 1963 (when the label first “Went Country”) have scored higher than six out of ten. Now that the operation was circling the drain, God only knows what kind of slush-pile oddments and rejects were finding their way into Klein’s in-tray.
Deep breath, clench fists, press play…
…and the Hillsiders turn out to be some kind of psychedelic pop-skiffle-folk collision, a crazed blend of the Free Design, Lonnie Donegan, the United States of America, Fairport Convention and the Mamas & the Papas, belting their way through a loosely-adapted spiritual at a thrilling ninety miles an hour. Absolutely remarkable.
You’re waiting for the punchline, right? For my face to crack and give this two out of ten? It’s not going to. Colour me stupid, because this is flat-out excellent.
I have no idea who these people are, or what the hell this was meant to be – I’m not at all convinced they meant it to come out like this. I get the feeling it’s meant to be a folky, quasi-religious singalong, something for jug bands to rattle through at church picnics. But – probably inadvertently – this sounds like a bunch of humanist hippies who’ve just dropped an entire month’s worth of acid. A weird, other-worldly female vocal, backed so closely but so quietly by a male choir that it almost sounds like tape echo or a strangely phased double-track, shimmers all over the record, the singer enunciating her words with immaculately prissy precision but with enough bizarre energy to make it all sound ghostly and, well, psychedelic, there’s no other word for it. It’s probably meant to remind us of June Carter, but instead it makes me think of Sandy Dedrick, Grace Slick and Mama Cass, hints of Trish Keenan and Dorothy Moskowitz.
Once again, I’m not joking.
There’s more of 1967 California in this than 1948 Texas, even if they’d likely have been bottled off the stage at Monterrey, but the sense that the thrills are accidental isn’t enough to blunt them. What’s even stranger, the point they’re making is enhanced by the sheer weirdness of it all. The lyrics of this adapted hymnal are all about making the most of your one and only run through life, being true to yourself rather than wasting your limited time on other people – and it’s genuinely moving.
If I could live my life again
How different I would live it then!
But I think I’m satisfied
To live and love this life of mine
For I’ll just pass this way one time
I might as well have peace of mind…
And it’s a musical thrill, too, bouncing along at triple speed with the exact same four-bar backing loop (guitars, double bass and drums on endless repeat) and very little musical variation right through to the end. With the “tune” anchored by the band, the vocalists are free to do almost anything they like, safe in the knowledge the rhythm bed will be there to catch them; at the end, when the vocals dissolve into a heavenly mix of layered harmonies and freeform improvisation that Brian Wilson was still months away from mastering, the effect is nothing short of astounding.
For the record: still not joking.
I don’t know if anyone else ever took to this record, or will ever take to this record; it doesn’t belong in the Motown catalogue, it sticks out like a sore thumb among the sub-par country scribbles that make up most of the rest of the Mel-o-dy catalogue, it’s not even a particularly good example of a folk-pop record. But I play this back-to-back with The Proper Ornaments and We’ll Love Like Before and it doesn’t sound out of place, however much it was probably meant to; it’s an accidental glimpse of another musical world, and for that I find it an incredibly refreshing and unexpected treat.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
You’re reading Motown Junkies, an attempt to review every Motown A- and B-side ever released. Click on the “previous” and “next” buttons below to go back and forth through the catalogue, or visit the Master Index for a full list of reviews so far.
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