Thursday, October 20, 2011

October 20: The Mama's & The Papa's, "California Dreamin'"

Artist: The Mama's & The Papa's
Song: "California Dreamin'"
Album: If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears
Year: 1965

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Though there may only be one or two in each generation, there are a handful of songs that were so perfectly crafted and fitting for their time, that they have gone on to completely represent and entire era of human history in their sound and style.  Whether it is the absolutely perfectly orchestrated recordings of Fats Waller and the way that they vividly depict the "depression era," or the way that Jerry Lee Lewis was able to define the mischievous rush of the 1950's, one can easily point to music perhaps more than any other form of art to understand the culture of a time period.  This was certainly true during the rise of the "counter culture" of the mid-to-late 1960's, and while there were many, few groups represented the sentiments of the youth of the time as perfectly as one finds in the music of The Mama's & The Papa's.  Blending together absolutely serene vocal harmonies with a perfect balance of folk, blues, soul, and rock and roll, the recordings of The Mama's & The Papa's stand as some of the finest representations of the "psychedelic sound," and many of their songs have perhaps even outshone the group themselves.  Most of these amazing singles can be found on the groups' sensational 1966 debut, If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears, and there may be no better a definition of the group, nor the entire "hippie" movement than The Mama's & The Papa's unforgettable 1965 single, "California Dreamin'."

In almost every aspect, "California Dreamin'" is as iconic a song as has ever been recorded, and it stands as one of the songs which can be identified from its first few notes.  The beautiful, instantly hypnotizing acoustic guitar introduction played by John Phillips has been used countless times over the decades in various forms of popular culture, and the riff in itself stands as one of the most definitive "links" to the "Summer of Love" sound, though the song itself preceded that period by almost half a decade.  As the second guitar from P.F. Sloan winds into the sound, eventually giving way to the song proper, there is a dramatic, almost overwhelming tone that explodes off of the record, even after hearing it countless times.  It is the interplay between all of the instruments in the "main" part of the song that enables "California Dreamin'" to become such a powerful recording, as there is a swell within the arrangement that manages to transport the listener to the setting which the lyrics describe.  Yet the reality is that while the music has a rather full sound, it is actually a rather simple and stripped-down arrangement.  The inter-locked guitars are complimented by the almost "walking" bassline from Joe Osborn, and drummer Hal Blaine keeps a sturdy pace throughout the track.  It is the way that this combined sound seems to sway back and forth that makes "California Dreamin'" nothing short of mesmerizing, and it is much the reason the song is able to retain this quality more than four decades later.

However, there is no question that while the musical arrangement has made its own place in music history, the true "magic" behind "California Dreamin'," and the entire catalog of The Mama's & The Papa's lives within the stunning vocal performance that the quartet bring to every song.  One can easily argue that the four voices that comprise the group stand as the finest example of vocal chemistry, and yet it is also the way that their spirits and energy seem to match so perfectly that makes "California Dreamin'" such a blissful experience.  Regardless of whether it is a lead on the verses or a shared vocal on the bridge and chorus section, there is not a moment anywhere on the song that is anything less than absolutely beautiful, and the fact that the vocals are able to overpower the instrumentation makes one realize that "California Dreamin'" stands as one of the few songs of the "rock era" that in reality needs no musical backing.  Yet it is also the way in which the vocals so perfectly match the words which are being sung, as there is a fantastic balance between the "cold" of the winter night on which they were written, and the brighter, warmer sound about which they are singing.  The sheer enjoyment, if not glory, with which each of the four are singing is absolutely uplifting, and it is this sound and spirit which have pushed "California Dreamin'" to stand as one of the greatest and most definitive songs ever recorded.

Yet most people are unaware that the now-iconic backing vocal was actually taken from a previous recording.  This section of the song was lifted from Barry McGuire's This Precious Time album, where the group served as backing vocalists.  In fact, if one listens closely to the opening of "California Dreamin'," the "original" lead vocals can briefly be heard in the left channel, as they were not completely mixed out of the later recording.  However, this in no way detracts from the song in any way, as there is little arguing that it is the "formal" arrangement by The Mama's & The Papa's that is far superior, as the mood and tone are far superior.  The way that the group is able to turn their voices into instruments is the finest representation of what a beautiful vocal can do, and the song remains one of the most heavily covered in all of music history.  As the years have passed, everyone from Eddie Hazel to R.E.M. to Queen Latifah have taken a shot at the classic track, and yet there is no question that it is the emotion and sound of the original that makes it impossible to top.  Every element of the original recording of "California Dreamin'" is absolutely perfect, and one can also see how the harmonies displayed on this song would go on to influence artists from nearly every style of music.  Standing as one of the most important musical achievements, as well as a track that completely defines the cultural movement that would follow, there is simply no other song in history that can measure up to the power and significance of The Mama's & The Papa's legendary 1965 single, "California Dreamin'."

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