When the Mamas and the Papas sputtered out in 1968, someone had the genius notion to highlight Cass Elliot’s own name on their final single, “Dream a Little Dream of Me”, and voila! Mama Cass was poised for solo stardom. That song became the title and leadoff track of her debut LP, a gloriously weird mishmash of contemporary songs with pre-rock sounds which basically provided the template for the rest of Elliot’s solo career.
Elliot would release three more studio albums, one live album, and a collaboration with Dave Mason before her death in 1974. Her second effort, Bubblegum, Lemonade and… Something For Mama, couldn’t have been more appropriately titled, as it moved her predilection for standards, camp, and sugar-sweet tunes to the forefront. It also featured two of her biggest, best, and most memorable pop hits in “It’s Getting Better” and “Make Your Own Kind of Music”, joyous slices of optimism and affirmation used perfectly in the gay coming-out film Beautiful Thing almost 30 years later.
More than two years would pass between the release of Bubblegum and Elliot’s eponymous third solo record (and her first for RCA). Although Bubblegum and Cass Elliot are likely her finest solo work, the two albums couldn’t be more different. Where the former was a enjoyably lightweight collection that played to Elliot’s considerable strengths as a singer of standards, the latter returned her to the realm of the hip, a space that she occupied on her debut when she sang songs by Leonard Cohen, John Hartford, and Richard Manuel. This time out, she went for Randy Newman, Judee Sill, Van McCoy, and the Beach Boys’ Bruce Johnston. Granted, the safe “Baby I’m Yours” (previously a hit for Barbara Lewis) and the ultra-nostalgic “Disney Girls” were two of these songs, so they weren’t that far off from Elliot’s earlier work. But the Newman songs are particularly well-rendered. “I’ll Be Home” is one of Elliot’s finest performances: the singer and a solo piano handle things for the first minute and a half before drums and strings add some more power, allowing a little more gospel to come out of the piano and Elliot to sing with more soul than she typically displayed. “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” overdoes the gospel element, but is still well-sung.
“When It Doesn’t Work Out”, though, is probably the highlight of Cass Elliot. Written by her sister, Leah Kunkel, the song gives Elliot an opportunity to lament lost love, and to sing with a yearning that her usual sweetness rarely gives us a chance to hear. That it wasn’t a hit is somewhat less surprising than the fact that the song was stranded on this record for almost 40 years, probably unheard by anyone but Elliot’s most rabid fans.
Cass Elliot flopped, though not due to any weakness on its part. Sonically, the differences between Cass and its predecessors are minimal. It might be a bit more understated, as far as her records go, which goes along with the generally more mature subject matter and the effort to divorce herself from the “Mama Cass” persona. (Her association with one of the biggest acts of the ’60s would overshadow her solo work for the rest of her life – her last album was called Don’t Call Me Mama Anymore – and in perpetuity.) It’s possible that Bubblegum, fantastic as it was, destroyed her chances at finding a more adult audience. A series of similar-sounding non-album singles probably didn’t help matters, either. So her strongest record yet wound up with zero audience.
Unfortunately, although the chart failure of Cass Elliot carried over to its follow-up, the okay-but-forgettable The Road Is No Place For a Lady, it’s artistic progress did not. While no failure, Road is the least distinguished of Elliot’s studio efforts. It lacks the earworm melodies of Bubblegum and the songwriting strength of Cass Elliot. But the leadoff track, “(If You’re Gonna) Break Another Heart”, by all accounts should have been a hit. It’s a wonderful pop production from start to finish, and probably the best melody on the record. The rest of what’s here, other than “Does Anybody Love You” and “Say Hello”, is pleasant but second-rate soft pop. Elliott never sounds less than great, but it’s a shame she didn’t have better material this time around.
Had Elliot lived, it would’ve been interesting to see if she’d returned to being a first-class interpreter of standards old and new, or if she’d made something out of the kind of anonymous song-mill fluff that made up the bulk of The Road Is No Place For a Lady. What’s clear, though, is that Elliot deserved to have more success than she did. She had a friendly sound and an adventurous spirit, and her records hold up a lot better than the casual listener might expect. I only wish she’d made a few more of them.