Saturday, August 3, 2013

Harpers Bizarre

I've stumbled upon this fantastic website for reading about music. It's While half-watching a ballgame the other night, I navigated the site, typing in many of the performers that I've followed for years. It was deeply satisfying to see their work put into context, and most times I agreed with the critical opinion offered. (Lots of mental back-patting going on too, as I saw that many of my favorites are well regarded.)

There were moments when the reviewer stated opinions that clarified thoughts that I'd had. I love Loudon Wainwright III, so I'm unlikely to speak out if I sense that a song he's doing isn't working. But the All-Music critic did in his review of Loudon's latest, Older Than My Old Man Now. Of several of Loudon's comedic efforts, reviewer Thom Jerek writes "Not everything works here, however. "I Remember Sex" with Barry Humphries (Dame Edna Everage), and "My Meds" are just plain bad; "Double Lifetime" with Ramblin' Jack Elliot reveals Wainwright's humor stretched to the metaphorical breaking point." I felt it, but being such a fan, I couldn't say it. But now it's out there, and I appreciate the straightening of my vision regarding Loudo.

But I must defend this group from the late 1960s, Harpers Bizarre, from the slings and arrows of critics on the site.

This group's work has been described as "soft psychedelic or soft AM pop" (Amazon) and "Broadway/Sunshine pop" (Wikipedia). I find their music incredibly distinctive and a taste, once acquired, that you won't be able to lose because it's so infectious.
How to be twee: wear a collar and tie in 1967 when you're in your twenties!

Sure, you may need time for acclimation, but it's perfect background music as you go about your chores. Their repertoire is impeccable: for example, they perform songs by Cole Porter ("Anything Goes," "Two Little Babes in the Woods"), Randy Newman (too many to mention, but highlights include "The Biggest Night of Her Life" and "Snow"), and the Gershwins ("I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise").

The title track of their initial effort, Feelin' Groovy, yielded a Top Ten hit and it receives All-Music's highest rating in their discography. But then the slams follow. Of their next release Anything Goes (and this one was my first exposure to them) the All-Music critic sniffs that it's "rock for the kiddies" or perhaps "rock for the old folks" and "way too twee" to be meaningful. To make matters worse, the critic refers to Randy Newman's orchestrations as "LA pop-rock schmaltz."
The second album: let the savaging by All-Music begin!
I understand that this opinion represents the case against the group, and undoubtedly many people will agree with it. I guess I've spent my life being slightly off-center in my musical tastes, so allow me to fire back with a defense.

First of all, the talent associated with this group is stunning. You have producer Lenny Waronker at the helm. Described as Newman's "unofficial song-plugger" at the time, Waronker would later rise from producing to becoming the head of A&R (Artists & Repetoire) at Reprise Records in 1971. He would subsequently become head of Warner Brothers and executive at Dreamworks. Check out this fascinating interview with him. Lots of wisdom there!

Ted Templeman, the lead vocalist for Harpers Bizarre, was soon to produce all of the Doobie Brothers' work. All-Music describes him as having a "strong, clear production aesthetic."

Here are some other musicians whose names dot the releases of Harpers Bizarre: Leon Russell, Lee Herschberg, and, of course, Randy Newman. After reading their biographies you have to marvel at the workshop that was Harpers Bizarre.

But mostly it's the songs. In his interview, Lenny Waronker repeatedly says that as an artist you must have good material. Boy, could he and Harpers Bizarre choose it! Their list is so diverse: you've got Otis Redding songs ("Hard to Handle," "Knock on Wood") stirred in with composers from the prerock era (Frank Loesser, Burton Lane, even Rodgers and Hammerstein!) Plus I love the songs that the band members themselves write.

Now let's return to the disdain displayed of most of their work on All-Music. Their work is "mildly eccentric," writes one reviewer of the The Secret Life of Harpers Bizarre, as it "skirts adult contemporary Muzak almost as it does anything that could be considered rock music, and is rather a dark day in the annals of sunshine pop." The followup, 1969's Harpers Bizarre, is described as a "fussy sunshine pop production" and "a soft rock marshmallow that was easier to swallow than their gooiest previous concoctions."

Perhaps I should stop here or my high praise of the group will completely lose its power! All I can say is that although I love the language and I fully understand the dissension, I can't agree with it. I love the true eccentrics, and that's what these guys were when you consider the historical moment musically. The "counter counterculture" is how Van Dyke Parks recently put it. Indeed.

Give Harper's Bizarre a listen. I hope you'll be delighted. 

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