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Margo Guryan: 25 Demos

Gary Glauber

Margo Guryan

25 Demos

Label: Oglio
US Release Date: 2001-09-04

Hindsight and nostalgia are the faulty prisms through which we see the 1960s as simpler and better times. Far from the musical worlds of the British invasion and psychedelic pop, there existed a world of soft gentle sophistication, where introspective love songs were sung quietly by the likes of Claudine Longet, Jackie DeShannon, Petula Clark and Astrud Gilberto. These ethereal avant-pop songs are so far removed from the angst-ridden hard-driving songs of this new millennium, they appeal to many as a sort of escape: so far out they're in.

25 Demos is a collection of songs by the talented writer Margo Guryan. This reluctant performer has been the focus of a recent rediscovery. Her music remains relevant across the decades due to its universal subjects: love, sunshine, rain and yet more love. Some of the songs seem dated, but with her wispy delivery, they remain fixed in time as relics from another era worth examining. When Hal David was teaming with Burt Bacharach, Trini Lopez was bemoaning the fates of lemon trees, and Nana Maskouri and Maureen McGovern were forging careers, the world was a different place.

Some years prior to this, a child born in New York's Far Rockaway began piano lessons in the first grade. She continued on through high school and at Boston University, she studied classical music (though in truth, she loved jazz and certain kinds of pop music).

Always a little wary of performing, this young woman actually switched over to composition to avoid having to do a senior piano recital. It was then that Margo Guryan began to realize her talents in creating pop and jazz compositions. In 1957, Chris Connor became the first artist to record one of her songs. With "Moon Ride" on vinyl, a songwriting career officially began.

After graduating, she spent three weeks at the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts. John Lewis and Gunther Schuller of the teaching staff there signed her to MJQ Music, where she was able to transform classmate Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman" into a vocal version. But Margo Guryan's world changed when jazz pal Dave Frishberg turned her on to The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds.

After being wowed by "God Only Knows", Guryan began a listening frenzy to hear all the pop/rock she could find, and the influences began to shape her own writing. She compiled a number of original songs, then approached Columbia's publishing company (April-Blackwood), where manager (and eventual husband) David Rosner was so impressed he signed her to record an album. Take A Picture was released to positive reviews in 1968, but since Guryan was reluctant to perform, there was no tour to support the album and her career as a performer was short-lived. The album quickly found its way to bargain bins and relative obscurity.

As Updike unleashed a rabbit, and Cheever chronicled the microcosm of the suburbs, Guryan was forging a name behind the scenes as a productive songwriter. By the time her own album was released, Guryan's "Sunday Morning" already had been a hit for Spanky & Our Gang. That same song was a hit a year later for Oliver, and was later recorded by Julie London, Bobbie Gentry and Glen Campbell, among others.

Almost as popular with recording artists was Guryan's "Think of Rain", which made it onto records by Claudine Longet, Jackie DeShannon, Bobby Sherman and Astrud Gilberto (Dion and Harry Nilsson recorded unreleased versions of it too). This song was her direct response to Brian Wilson's "God Only Knows". Guryan also placed songs with Carmen McCrae, Anita O'Day, The Lennon Sisters and Mama Cass Elliot. In a thriving universe of sophisticate whisper pop, Margo Guryan was a songwriting success.

Guryan continued composing on into the 1970s, moving out to Los Angeles and trying to remain topical, penning some political songs about Watergate, one about a fear of earthquakes and even a try at disco. As time wore on, her interest in writing faded as her interest in producing others grew. She began to study classical music again and eventually turned to teaching. As a teaching aid for her students, she turned again to composing in the 1990s.

Her one album legacy of soft-pop gems became quite the collectors' item, and online auctions were fetching in the realm of 200 dollars per copy only a few years back. Guryan's reputation as a songwriter extended overseas to Japan, England and other parts of Europe. A whole new generation began to discover her songs and Linus of Hollywood's Franklin Castle label re-issued her 1968 chamber-pop classic Taking Pictures in 2000. This reissue featured a bonus of three publisher's demos of songs.

Now, a year later (after the re-release garnered much acclaim and a cult following), we learn that these were but a small sampling of a very large cache of Guryan demos. Franklin Castle/Oglio has collected 25 of them (hence the astute title) in retrospective for your listening and historical pleasure.

First, a word about the demo arrangements: some seem overly simplistic which may be merely a function of the time and methods of recording when they were done. Some of these feature just piano, while others offer a properly arranged band of accompaniment (guitars, drums, vibes, cello, clarinet, flutes and oboes in places). Personally, I had a hard time getting past the "Sesame Street"-type arrangements on "What Can I Give You" and "Can You Tell"(though the latter has some nice bass lines).

There's no denying Guryan's songwriting skill. Guryan plays with rhythms in her songs, time signatures often change from bar to bar, but never counter to the general feel of a song. However, many of the artists who recorded her songs ignored the subtle time changes entirely, and it drove Guryan mad to witness her ¾ measures screwed up into 4/4. This was one reason that prompted her to go ahead and record her own record, in spite of a feeling she couldn't sing very well.

Producer and husband David Rosner suggested doubling the vocal tracks to get around her limitations (upper register notes could only be gotten in a breathy baby-girl voice).

Guryan realized that if she sang not too hard in the lower range and not too soft in the upper, doubling the vocals managed to smooth out the imperfections, with results that compared favorably to the wispy-voiced chanteuses of the time.

The majority of lyric subject matter here is love, introspective and personal experiences conveyed in that breathy whisper. Guryan began writing poetry as a small girl, and never stopped. One major influence was the novel Raintree County by Ross Lockridge.

Guryan liked the way he ended one chapter with a sentence without a period that would continue on into the start of the next chapter. Guryan used this technique herself. In "The 8:17 Northbound Success Merry-Go-Round", a paean to the suburban sellout, the lyrics state: "He was one of a kind / the kind of a man / a man would be lucky to know."

These demos span recordings from 1967 to 1978, and include another that was recorded last year (but composed in 1966). They are chronologically arranged, with tracks 1-15 from the 1960s, tracked 16-24 from the 1970s. Some of the songs ("Think of Rain", "Love Songs", "Sun", "What Can I Give You", "Sunday Morning") are scaled down versions of what appeared on Take a Picture, but several here are previously unavailable material.

Most of the 1960s songs barely clock in at two minutes. These are terse little songs, short glimpses into lives, like "Something's Wrong With The Morning", where all threatens to fall out of balance if "he doesn't call to say hello". "Sunday Morning" and "Think of Rain" remain strong songs, perhaps even gaining power through the stripped-down demo arrangements.

"Most of My Life" is a pretty tune about an on-again, off-again relationship that has opened this woman's eyes to how special love can be. In "Thoughts", Guryan took on the challenge of creating a song using only simple two-word phrases: "Meeting you/ holding hands / making love / no demands". "I Don't Intend To Spend Christmas Without You" is a bold declaration made by a contrite lover eager not to be alone at holiday time, while the way "It's Alright Now" is sung presents a most unconvincing end to a relationship.

There are lots of curious gems here: "I Think A Lot About You" was Cass Elliot's last single before her death in 1974. Most interesting were the three Watergate era tunes, particularly the catchy "The Hum", a musical retelling of the tale of the 18-minute gap found in the famous Rosemary Woods tapes. Ms. Guryan puts on her boxing gloves and relates that: "The prices rise and the market falls / the trucks go slow and the Congress stalls/ the V.P. left with the dough he took / and the P. tells the world he's not a crook".

In "Please Believe Me" she takes phrases directly from the hearings and uses them for a narrative of a man trying to explain his way out of getting caught with another woman at the Watergate hotel. "I'd Like To See The Bad Guys Win" was inspired as a song written for Mae West, but comes across more as early Randy Newman in retrospect.

"California Shake" uses a nice bass rhythm to reflect the lyrical fear of earthquakes: "Fifteen seconds holding your breath / Living through a microscopic death", while "Hold Me Dancin'" is Guryan's intriguing homage to the Bee Gees' type Saturday Night Fever period.

All told, 25 Demos is a must for those already obsessed with Guryan, and an interesting curiosity for others. Her whispery voice isn't as strong as her writing, but the songs still engender a wide following among a new generation. St. Etienne has recorded her "I Don't Want to Spend Christmas Without You", Beck listens to her music while on the road, Cornelius has released Take A Picture in Japan, and Garbage's Shirley Manson wants to cover "Love Songs"(not to mention first-line fan Linus of Hollywood).

This unexpected interest in her work hasn't changed Guryan; today she continues to teach piano. Yet it's nice to know that all these years later, she's finally getting some long-deserved recognition. If you like the soft pop of St. Etienne or Ivy, give Ms. Guryan a spin.

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