Archive for the ‘ Baroque ’ Category

Los Macs “Kaleidoscope Men”

Los Macs may very be one of the crown jewels of South American psychedelia. Born out of the bright, rambling port town of Valparaíso, Chile, the band first gained acclaim playing rock and roll classics on the local bar scene before eventually becoming engulfed in the international wave of lysergia kicked off by the Lonely Hearts Club Band. Kaleidoscope Men is arguable their magnum opus in this regard, a heady mix of ramshackle garage, folk-rock and sound experiments sung in heavily accented English as well as Spanish. The track “La Muerte de Mi Hermano,” or “The Death of My Brother,” penned for the band by noted Nueva Canción writer Payo Grondona, was even a national hit, managing to combine left-wing political sympathies and interpolated tape samples with an extraordinarily catchy beat-group chorus. On the strength of this single, the album was to become one of the group’s most enduring successes, and it is not uncommon for Chileans to still recall Los Macs brief blip in the charts.

A caveat, however: one should not go into this record expecting the artistic budget and sophistication of Sergeant Pepper, despite the many comparisons. At their heart Los Macs were always a garage band anyways, and their musical vocabulary never strays far from a classic Nuggets-family groove. Raw, jangly guitars predominate, with occasional overdubs and tape reversals providing a little local color. Perhaps the closest parallel I can find is the one and only Rockets album, as each band maintains a similarly tight and screwy groove. Standouts tend to come with the more ambitious pieces, such as the extremely Harrison-esque “Atravéz del Cristal” and the album-closer “Nada Dulce Niña,” with its orchestral flourishes and astral organ blips. “F.M. and C.I.A.” rides free and easy, despite having what may be strident left-wing political lyrics (in the given recording the vocals are pretty unintelligible, so it’s hard to say whether this is in fact a scathing indictment of United States media control in Chile or just another teenybopper love song. I like to pretend it’s both). It’s unfortunate that the band did not compose more of their material in Spanish, as the musicians’ own language better serves their material, but this artistic compromise is at least somewhat understandable considering the stranglehold English-language pop music had on the Latin American market at the time (and still does, unfortunately).

If there is one serious fault to Kaleidoscope Men then it’s the album’s rather disjointed nature. Whereas contemporary recordings in this vein tended, almost as a rule, to explore various styles and modes, such disparity was generally bridged by a unifying sound or theme. Los Macs have concocted a solid batch of material, but many of the actual recordings sound as though they may have come from different sessions or periods in the band’s evolution. “La Muerte de Mi Hermano” is a good case-in-point. The sound effects that bookend the song could have served to clear the gap between it and the following piece, the much crisper, baroque-tinted ballad “Anne Marie,” but the band fails to make use of any such transitions and instead opts for a rather abrupt cut. This in turn slips into the frenetic garage rock frenzy of “Tension Extrema,” with a zooming fuzz guitar lead and  rough, filtered vocals. Taken piece by piece, there’s nothing to complain about; it’s only when these disparate elements are pieced together under one name that it starts to get a little jostling.

Kaleidoscope Men has been reissued several times under varying circumstances, including a Chilean compact disc issue with bonus tracks and a Japanese mini-LP version that adheres to the original tracklist. You’re probably going to have a hell of a time finding an original vinyl copy in Europe or the United States, seeing as how the band failed to make any commercial inroads outside of Chile, but these latter-day issues are more than work seeking out for yourself, and help revisit an important puzzle piece in the development of South American rock and roll.

mp3: Atravéz del Cristal
mp3: El Amor Despues de Los Veinte Ano

:) Original | 1967 | RCA Victor | search ebay ]

Tyrannosaurus Rex “Unicorn”

Marc Bolan was one of the best known musicians of the 1970s and he’d hardly be characterized as a cult figure if it were not for his early, tragic death. But before he hit number one and became a household name with his electric glitter glam persona, an early non-abbreviated Tyrannosaurus Rex released a string of “fantasy folk” records in the late 60s that gradually progressed toward psychedelia and perfection.

Tyrannosaurus Rex was comprised of Bolan and percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Steve Peregrin Took. Together with producer Tony Visconti (of Bowie fame) they recorded Unicorn very quickly in 1969, eventually reaching number 12 on the UK pop charts. In hindsight it seems like a strange feat given what kind of oddities this rather straightforward record jacket contained.

Bolan’s songs mostly revolve around open guitar chords, pitter-pat percussion, and strong two part harmonies, with the production kept extremely minimal. But even with such a seemingly limited pallet, Unicorn shines and shifts revealing layers of hidden beauty.

On songs like “Evenings of Damask” and “Stones for Avalon” Steve Took harmonizes in an otherworldly voice, perfectly matching Marc’s stray cat wail.  The percussion and various accompaniment Took provides manages to unobtrusively fill out the arrangements without ever taking anything away from Marc’s tall tales.

The lyrics are mostly unintelligible and concern all things fantasy (with far too many references to Lord of the Rings), but occasionally paint touching images like “Oh the throat of winter is upon us, barren barley fields refuse to sway/Lo the frozen bluebirds in the belfry, the blue bells in their hearts are surely prey”.

Perhaps it’s songs like “Throat of Winter” and “Like a White Star…” but this record has a persistent autumnal/winter vibe that penetrates like a deep chill. You can almost hear the cold in Bolan’s voice as he shivers through these tracks.

It’s not a stretch to say that Marc’s writing peaked with this album. It stands on its own with beautiful, mature melodies and is more stunning, original, and developed then anything he would subsequently produce. Bolan and Took parted ways shortly after Unicorn’s release, and the rest of the T. Rex story is widely known. But we’ll always have this record as a document of what Marc was truly capable of when he followed his heart.

Orignally released on Regal Zonophone/Blue Thumb, A&M has a very nice reissue of this disc that is readily available from Amazon. Original vinyl copies are highly sought after.

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“Like A White Star, Tangled and Far, Tulip…”

:D Reissue | 2004 | Universal (expanded) | buy ]
:) Original | 1969 | Polydor | search ebay ]

Harumi “Harumi”

There are many albums by  unknown artists that deserve to be dug up and reexamined (or perhaps examined for the first time). Then there are the very few that reach up and grab you by the ears, making you wonder why they were ever forgotten in the first place.  Harumi falls into the second category.

Somehow an unknown from Japan (with feminine name) managed to locate one of the most renowned producers of the day to record his self titled debut record for Verve in 1968. Tom Wilson, the impresario behind both Dylan and Nico’s best loved albums heard something special in Harumi’s psyched out English-penned originals and we are still reaping the benefits of that union today.

Comparisons don’t give this music its due. Easy references like mid period Byrds or Jefferson Airplane might be obvious because of the relatively familiar aesthetic (for the time period) , but there is much to this record that greatly sets it apart from the more successful contemporary acts.

The main draw here is Harumi’s exceptional original songs and the way his drugged out voice navigates them. “First Impressions” begins with a Zombie-esque guitar and organ lick before catapulting into full pop mode with strings and brass. Harumi sounds haunting here, especially when he glides back in after the baroque instrumental break in the middle. This track drips with an endless summer vibe that spills over on the rest of the record.

Organ and jazzy vibraphone (along with assorted Japanese instruments) are present on nearly every track, filling out an already tight rhythm section. Little subtleties, like the phase effect on Harumi’s vocals on “Sugar in Your Tea”, or the Eastern sounding guitar on “We Love” crawl to the fore on repeat listens. The latter song is one of the best here- it grooves steadily through the haze and features some lyrical highlights like “Would you like to say hello to everyone that you have ever known?” and “You are me and I am you- there is no comparison for two”.

From start to finish (including the 2 extended cuts that make up the second half of this double album), Harumi is a remarkable listen that sets a very persistent vibe.

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“First Impressions”

:) Original  | 1968 | Verve Forecase | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | Don’t Buy Fallout ]

Judee Sill “Judee Sill”

Judee Sill’s self-titled debut hit the shelves in 1971, the first release on David Geffen’s Asylum Records. Unjustly lost amongst the sands of time, and out of print for many years until it’s reissue a few years ago, Judee Sill is one-of-a-kind, an essential album, a defining example of West Coast canyon country, a hauntingly beautiful record by an extremely delicate soul and one of the 70’s most talented singer-songwriters.

Sill had been playing musical instruments of various kinds since her troubled childhood on the West Coast, which she spent dreaming of being a singer, a songwriter, and a star. An even more troubled young adulthood spent dabbling in hard drugs, armed robbery, and prostitution had landed her stints in reform schools and jail cells. After a near fatal overdose and a brush with the law that left her kicking heroin in a county jail cell, as well as the death of her brother and mother, Sill–who was increasingly drawn to metaphysical topics and occult, religious imagery–began taking her songwriting seriously. Her first big break came after landing a gig writing songs for Blimp Productions in Los Angeles when The Turtles decided to record a version of her song “Lady-O.” It was immediately clear to those around her that Sill had developed a lyrical style as distinctive as her achingly beautiful crystal-clear-as-a-mountain-stream singing voice. The time was ripe for Sill to make her “country-cult-baroque” vision a reality.

Opening with Judee’s fingerpicked guitar and a lone French horn, “Crayon Angels” is a beautifully evocative song, an honest prayer for heavenly hands matched with a gently breezy pastoral vibe perfectly suited to Judee’s delicate voice. Next up, “The Phantom Cowboy” lets Judee’s dirt road roots show through a little more while introducing the archetype of a traveling mystic ridge rider that appears frequently throughout Judee’s body of work. “The Archetypal Man” has even more of a laid-back Topanga-folk vibe with weeping pedal steel combined with baroque orchestral flourishes. “The Lamb Ran Away With The Crown” is an absolutely beautiful tune that kicks off with just Judee’s softly reassuring voice and lilting guitar, perfectly expressing Judee’s belief in the possibility of goodness in the world. The lushly orchestrated “Lady-O” goes miles beyond The Turtles recording of the song, showing just how unassumingly evocative Judee’s vocal delivery can be. Similarly, Judee’s performance of “Jesus Was A Cross Maker” is the definitive version of the song, which is perfectly suited to her crystalline vocalizations and the gospel piano inflections that she learned while leading the church choir as a teenager in reform school. Produced by Graham Nash, the song was a last minute addition to the album, obviously in high hopes of a hit.

“Ridge Rider” further fleshes out Judee’s vision of a bohemian saint who rides the rough road to salvation despite its perils, complete with tasty pedal steel and the sound of hoof beats carrying along the chorus. “My Man On Love” is an enchanting folk song full of Christian imagery. “Lopin’ Along Through the Cosmos” plods along at a pace just a bit slower than the rest of the album as Judee again pleads for the gift of peace. “Enchanted Sky Machines”, a song about salvation by UFO, quickly picks up the pace, beginning with another groovy gospel piano part that’s soon accompanied by brassy horns and upbeat drums. The beautifully orchestrated “Abracadabra” closes the album on a tender note and a major key.

Despite it all, Judee Sill didn’t sell as well as the troubadour and her friends had hoped. Nevertheless, she soldiered on to record and release 1973’s Heart Food, an equally outstanding album, which made even greater use of both her gospel influenced keyboard playing and her talent for orchestral composition. Sadly, Heart Food sold even fewer copies than the first album and Judee’s life began to gradually deteriorate. After a handful of auto-accidents in the late seventies Judee once again began turning to codeine, cocaine, and heroine in an attempt to numb the pain she suffered from so greatly.  Judee’s life was cut tragically short the day after Thanksgiving 1973 1979, when she died after overdosing on codeine and cocaine. She was 35 years old.

Who knows what heights Judee and her music may have reached had she lived long enough for more people to pick up on her gentle genius? Both Judee Sill and Heart Food rank right up there with the best from giants like Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Sandy Denny, and Carole King, as well as releases by other unsung souls like Collie Ryan, Karen Beth, and Vashti Bunyan. Forty years later there still isn’t anything than can truly compare.

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“Crayon Angels”

:) Original | 1971 | Asylum | search ebay ]
;) MP3 Album | download here ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Tages “Contrast”

I first heard of the Swedish band Tages through this very site, from a great post on their memorable 1967 album Studio.  Tages actually released two albums that year, and I find the earlier release Contrast to be an interesting foil to Studio (which it preceded by seven months). Both albums are filled with their signature brew of incredibly creative psychedelic rock, but I find myself more attracted to the songs on “Contrast” (with all but four being originals).

What sets Tages apart from many other ‘foreign’ psych bands of the era is their high production standards, which could be credited at least partly to producer Anders Henriksson. The arrangements and unique sounds of Tages’ records elevate them above mere copy-cat status and have helped make both their 1967 albums an interesting listen to this day.

The track “You’re Too Incomprehensible” alone is enough to convert any skeptic to a Tages devotee. Multiple movements, lush yet avant-garde strings, and a myriad of sound effects all bubble around a really lovely tune- progressive psychedelia at it’s finest. “Fuzzy Patterns” would be fairly straight forward, if not for the orchestral freakout placed right in the middle. “Prisoner 763″ is an incredibly dark tune- played on a harpsichord heavily treated with delay. The line “I am condemned” hits hard, with the melody owing  much to to the Swedish folk the group was reared on.

Some tracks fall slightly short of the mark, like “Sister’s Got a Boyfriend” and “Why Do You Hide It?”, the latter of which carries the creepy lyric “I think you are the prettiest child a woman ever has born”. Both of these songs contain great production; their shortcomings are simply that they are strange songs (which may in fact be due to their troubles with English).

Opener “I’m Going Out” is an upbeat jaunt in the vein of The Zombies “This Will Be Our Year”, except with the ironic lyrics “I want to cry; I want to die”. It’s this slightly off kilter tendency that has kept “Contrast” fresh; the nuances reveal themselves on repeat listens.

Contrast stands on it’s own as an interesting record, and it was met with deserved success in Tages’ homeland.  It’s yet to be released in it’s entirety on CD, but many of the songs can be found on various “Greatest Hits” collections as well as their retrospective “1964-1968″ disc.

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“You’re Too Incomprehensible”

:) Original | 1967 | Parlophone | search ebay ]
:D Anthology |  2010 | EMI | buy here ]

The Klan “Join Us”

In America “The Klan” might have some negative connotations, but to a group of kids in Brussels in 1963 it sounded like the perfect band name (good enough to have chosen it over their original name “Los Ombres“). They soon began adding a disclaimer to their name, written as “The Klan (Belgium Band),” to prevent any further confusion.

Regardless of the cheeky title, The Klan were a wonderful baroque pop outfit with one exceptional full length LP to their credit. The songs on 1966’s Join Us are incredibly musical and far more considered than the typical pop fair of the time.

Like most bands of the era, this record touches on all facets of the Beatles but mainly cops the folk rock shamble of Help! and Revolver, with heavy Harrison style vocals. The lush string/brass arrangements and studio effects occasionally take the record into mild psych territory, like on the gorgeous “And I Love It So” and “Already Mine” with it’s vaguely eastern refrain. There’s also a light flair for Spector-esque grandiosity here, with some songs aproaching the Brill Building style.

It’s difficult to pick favorites from such a solid album, but some standouts include opener “Fify the Fly” which outshines its goofy subject matter with a pretty melody and a bouncy harpsichord line, and “One of My Dreams” which could easily have been a mid-period Harrison song.

With all the Beatles references aside, The Klan wrote some fantastic material and although they did not achieve much notoriety outside of their home country, these songs definitely deserve to be heard apart from their mid-60s context to truly appreciate the unique perspective on this record.

“Join Us” has yet to be reissued on CD, but LPs do turn up on eBay frequently (especially the 1967 Brazilian pressing).

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“Fify The Fly”

:) Original | 1966 | Palette | search ]

Phil Ochs “Greatest Hits”

Few rock and roll tragedies have the sort of complex, emotional impact as that of Phil Ochs. As the most uncompromising of the 1960s protest singers, Ochs was arguably one of the only such singers who refused to surrender his revolutionary ambitions for abstract, personal romanticism. However, as the idealistic hopes of the decade began to give way to darker days, Ochs found the counterculture facing what looked like a losing battle. Caught between the collapse of the movement he had devoted himself to and a deep, chronic depression, Ochs did what any man would do: he took a wild left turn and released one of his most esoteric albums – one that remained fervently political, but which also turned out to be surprisingly autobiographical.

Despite its title, Greatest Hits is an album of ten new original songs, produced by the legendary Van Dyke Parks. This record had to have been one of the last thing Ochs fans expected from their hero, as it more or less entirely eschews the folk music foundations of his previous records and instead delves wholeheartedly into a sort of orchestral country rock. A taste of the man’s electric explorations was certainly evident on his last record, Rehearsals For Retirement, but that had been comparable to what Dylan and the Byrds had done before him; the country touch here is his most interesting indulgence.

Perhaps tellingly, Elvis Presley serves as one of the record’s most pervasive influences, from the Elvis In Memphis nod of the cover art, to the great, sarcastic tag-line “fifty Phil Ochs fans can’t be wrong.” One of Ochs’ best-remembered quotes is that “if there’s any hope for a revolution in America, it lies in getting Elvis Presley to become Che Guevara.” This record is his strongest attempt at bridging the wide gap between those two disparate icons, and though it has never received much critical or commercial attention, it really is an underrated classic.

Simply reading through the musicians involved gives testimony to the musical strength here. Players include Clarence White, Kevin Kelley and Gene Parsons from the Byrds, Ry Cooder, Chris Ethridge, James Burton, Earl Ball, and even Don Rich from the Buckaroos. Together they craft a driving and authentic honky-tonk sound that is given a unique bent by Parks’ contrasting orchestral arrangements – check out the opener “One Way Ticket Home” for one of the most interesting examples. Of course, that is not to say that Ochs’ old sound is entirely absent, as songs such as “Jim Dean From Indiana” and the eerily prophetic “No More Songs” certainly harken back to the somber and dramatic style he had been exploring on his last few recordings.

Greatest Hits is criminally out of print in any tangible format, though it is available digitally. This is absolutely a record worth investigating, whether you’re already an established Phil Ochs fan or are only now learning about the man and his music. A live record was made during the tour for this album, and eventually released in 1975 as Gunfight at Carnegie Hall. It takes Ochs’ robust new sound even further, featuring numerous rock and roll covers and rearrangements of older material. Also of note is the new, highly-recommended documentary about Ochs, There But For Fortune. It’s a compelling story, and the film really does manage to capture the many tangled aspects of his life, including his enduring legacy.

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“One Way Ticket Home”

:) Original Vinyl | 1970 | A&M | search ebay ]
;) MP3 Album | download here ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Emerald Web “Dragon Wings and Wizard Tales”

Emerald Web was the wind playing electronic duo of Kat Epple and Bob Stohl.  Although they’d become better known for their work scoring nature documentaries (including many collaborations with Carl Sagan), Emerald Web’s 1979 debut album was a milestone in electronic psychedelia- rooted in the prog of the mid 70s and foreshadowing much of what would come in the early 80s.

Dragon Wings and Wizard Tales mixes analog synthesizing with the heavy use of wind instruments, augmented occasionally by the angelic vocals of Kat Epple. The sound is incredibly unique. There is a very haunting experimental quality to this music that prevents it from sounding like muzak, although it occasionally veers in that direction.

The Lyricon wind controller makes a very early recorded appearance on this album and is one of the reasons the many sounds heard here are hard to place. The line is constantly blurred between live flutes and the electronic approximations, even occasionally mimicking bird calls. It’s these sound combinations that give the songs an otherworldly quality- like hearing indigenous music from another planet.

Although some pastoral vocal songs show up here and there, eerily dreamy instrumentals make up a little more than half the record. These are certainly among the highlights and show Emerald Web’s talent for crafting soundtrack music that would come to the fore later on. “The Flight of the Raven” is a brief but gorgeous piece, summing up all that is good about this record in under three minutes. Fleeting melodies give way to dramatic clashing synths, fading away at just the right moment. “The Powerstone” recalls early King Crimson, especially the vibe of “Moonchild”. It’s on this track that Emerald Web’s knack for creating natural sounding tones and soundscapes from very electronic instruments is most evident.

This record is highly recommended for fans of golden era progressive and electronic music. Originally released as a private pressing on Stargate, Dragon Wings and Wizard Tales LPs are somewhat rare these days, although they do turn up regularly on eBay.

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“Fight of the Raven”

:) Original Vinyl | 1979 | Stargate | search ebay ]

Tiny Tim “God Bless Tiny Tim”

Love him or hate him, there was no one else like Tiny Tim in the late 60’s.  John Lennon was reportedly a fan, and Tim was a staple on late night television of the time. In 1968 he released his debut album on Reprise- a blend of American popular songs and extreme weirdness that often veers into psychedelia.

God Bless Tiny Tim was promoted as a joke record, but beneath all the camp and novelty there are some stunning gems on this very musical album.

This is an early example of outsider music and Tim did exactly what he wanted here, aided with expert production by Richard Perry. Some moments recall the whimsy of Van Dyke Parks’ debut, or even that of Randy Newman’s first with dense dynamic orchestral arrangements supplementing a full band. Tracks like “Strawberry Tea” and “The Coming-Home Party” and the brilliant version of Irving Berlin’s “Stand Down Here Where You Belong” are completely straightforward pop songs and would have been coveted by any self respecting psych band of the era.

The creepiness of “Daddy Daddy, What is Heaven Like?” is overpowered by Tiny Tim’s sincerity. His knowledge of American musical tradition and dedication to music hall and vaudeville allow these songs to come to life in very satisfying ways. It’s somewhat prophetic that in 1968 Tim was singing “The ice caps are melting…”, and there is a definite vibe that Tim’s not only in on the joke, but is really the one laughing here (which he does hysterically at one point).

The between-song narration occasionally stifles the flow, but it gives us a little glimpse into Tiny Tim’s mindset- his intentions were clearly to open himself up to the world and put on a show; his tastes, interests, showmanship, and quirky personality are all clearly present here. It’s the perfect production and it’s Tiny Tim’s consistently entertaining performances that really elevate this record above mere musical comedy status.

God Bless Tiny Tim is available from Rhino Handmade as a single disc or the 2006 “God Bless Tiny Tim: The Complete Reprise Studio Masters . . . And More” box set.

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“Strawberry Tea”

:D CD Reissue | 2008 | Rhino Handmade | buy here ]
:) Original Vinyl | 1968 | Reprise | search ebay ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

The Bee Gees “Bee Gees 1st”

Long before they were known as the kings of Disco, the Bee Gees were master craftsmen of some of the greatest pop-rock the late ‘60s and early ‘70s had to offer. First rumored to be The Beatles under an alias (“Bee Gees” = “Beatles Group,” get it?), the Bee Gees exploded in the North American market in the late summer of 1967 with this album (their first US Top 10 album), and three Top 20 singles:  “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” “To Love Somebody” (originally meant to be recorded for the late great Otis Redding), and “Holiday.”  The Brothers Gibb were well on their way to international superstardom.

On first listen, Bee Gees 1st plays like a wonderful, lost baroque-pop album, which isn’t far from the truth. The opening track, “Turn Of The Century,” with its lush orchestration and classic vocals from the Brothers Gibb, will immediately have the listener waiting for more. The hits, as previously mentioned, are here of course, but the remaining tracks are what give this album its enduring appeal; the record embodies the sweet sounds of the summer of ’67.  The psych-pop weirdness of “Red Chair, Fade Away” to the Pepper-esque “Every Christian Lion-Hearted Man Will Show You” reveal the Bee Gees at their most versatile and most talented. 1st is full of tunes that will make you smile, whether out of pure joy or bittersweet introspection.

1967 was one hell of a year for popular music.  Think of all the amazing and influential albums that were released that year – Sgt. Pepper’s, Surrealistic Pillow, The Doors S/T, Disraeli Gears; the list goes on and on. I like to hold this first Bee Gees album in the same category of greatness as all of the other classic smashes of ’67.

The Bee Gees are still a beloved music group. To me, there is nothing quite like their output from the late ‘60s. These songs, along with their other early albums (Horizontal, Idea, Odessa), have truly stood the test of time, and it’s easy to see why.  If you want to hear classic, endearing, and beautiful 1960s pop, pick up this album.

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“Turn Of The Century”

:D CD Reissue | 2007 | Rhino/Wea | buy here ]
:) Original Vinyl | 1967 | Atco | search ebay ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]