Spanky & Our Gang

Spanky and Our Gang

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The group's debut LP demonstrates what can go wrong, even with a group enjoying a trio of hit singles. Though those hits are here, the album is the least representative of what the group was about and a mixed bag for fans, presenting a trio of widely available hits, six or seven fine tracks currently unavailable elsewhere, and two musical lapses that between them account for nearly one-third of the running time. Spanky & Our Gang started out in Chicago with a sound somewhere midway between the original Jefferson Airplane and the original Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a folk-rock ensemble with a few jazzy twists and some funny between-song sketches. For their first year at Mercury Records, however, and especially on this LP, producer Jerry Ross used the group as an instrument of his own, turning them into a virtual clone of the Mamas & the Papas on a big portion of this album. Vocally most of the album is outstanding, the harmony singing absolutely radiant on the familiar hits "Sunday Will Never Seem the Same" (which featured an opening vocal vamp devised by Malcolm Hale), "Lazy Day," and "Making' Every Minute Count," and the popular B-sides "Commercial" and "It Ain't Necessarily Bird Avenue"; "5 Definitions of Love" captured some of the group's penchant for off-beat humor and some glorious harmony singing that has a strangely archaic feel, like a piece of medieval music (somehow anticipating elements of the sound that Gentle Giant, of all groups, would later create). The latter track, written by Bob Dorough, also pointed the way toward their future: Dorough and his songwriting/producer partner Stuart Scharf would be their producers the next time out. "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" is the most controversial song here, an unfinished track that was stuck onto the album by Jerry Ross in the process of rush-releasing the record and getting it above 30 minutes running time, with nothing but an awkward guide vocal, never intended to be heard by the public, from Elaine "Spanky" McFarlane; along with the four-minute rendition of "Ya Got Trouble" from Meredith Willson's The Music Man, which might've worked well on stage (and was a more immediate satire in 1967, closer to the movie's release and the run of the original show), it's the nadir of the record. The successful album tracks include a pair of gems with soaring harmonies, "If You Could Only Be Me," where they're singing and playing with a lot of heart despite the presence of a string section; "Leaving on a Jet Plane," the latter beautifully embellished with a punchy folk-rock sound, closer to the Byrds or the Beau Brummels than to Peter, Paul & Mary's hit; and the closer, a rocking, bluesy rendition of Jo Mapes's "Come and Open Your Eyes." Mapes, a big-voiced folk singer who started out in the early '50s, is all but forgotten today, but she made network television appearances during the '50s and cut records for Kapp, and was a major influence on Mary Travers, among others.

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