Don McLean

Homeless Brother

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After taking an album off as a songwriter with the all-covers collection Playin' Favourites in 1973, Don McLean returned to providing most of the compositions on his fifth LP Homeless Brother in 1974. It was an ambitious work, which he signaled by a sleeve note on the back cover in which he described "the vision of this album...growing within...." That vision, or concept, seemed to be embodied in the title and corresponding album cover, a painting of a hobo inside a boxcar. And, indeed, in song after song, notably the title track, which found McLean being accompanied by his mentor, Pete Seeger, on background vocals, there were references to hoboes and hoboing. (The record was dedicated to Lee Hays, Seeger's partner in the Weavers.) But there was also an entirely different concept at work on Homeless Brother, one that to some extent contradicted the hobo theme. That concept was also suggested in the original packaging, which was a glossy gatefold LP cover, the actual album sleeve containing both the lyrics and lengthy lists of high-priced studio musicians including horn and string sections working at the behest of producer Joel Dorn. All this suggested a major recording effort and a big release with the big sales such a release was intended to garner. And, indeed, many of the tracks were creamy pop productions that seemed to have little in common with the hobo theme. Certainly, much of the music would have confused a buyer who picked up the album based on the title and cover painting and expected a modern version of a topical folk album. On the other hand, the audience that might have been interested in the smooth soft-rock pop music inside probably would have been put off by the title and cover. That may help explain the album's curious commercial fate. United Artists Records released the attractive love song "La La Love You" as a single, but failed to break it, and the LP foundered on the charts. Then, months later, a second single, the infectious 1930s-styled "Wonderful Baby" (a song written for Fred Astaire, who recorded it, with some deceptively childlike lyrics that turned out to be somewhat caustic upon close examination) was put out on 45 and proceeded to top the Billboard easy listening chart, much too late to do any good to the album on which it originated.

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