Music

'The Magic Garden' Revisited: Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis, Jr. on Jimmy Webb

Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. salute the genius behind 'The Magic Garden' and explain why YOU should hear "Requiem: 820 Latham".

1967: It's "The Summer of Love" but things aren't so lovely in Hollywood.

The 5th Dimension are recording The Magic Garden with producer Bones Howe. It's an ambitious follow-up to the group's debut, Up, Up and Away (1967), which featured five compositions by Jimmy Webb, including the Top 10 title track. In between arranging and conducting the sessions for the new album, Webb discusses his lyrics with the group. Marilyn McCoo, Billy Davis, Jr., Florence LaRue, Lamonte McLemore, and Ron Townson sing the words with their distinct, precise harmonies. The Magic Garden is the young songwriter's first album-length score. He's only 21 years-old.

Unlike its predecessor, this musical journey was not a ride in a beautiful balloon. In fact, upon close inspection of the lyrics, the mini-opuses of The Magic Garden sounded like someone took a spear and tore that beautiful balloon to shreds. The melodies and rhythms had to be accessible for AM radio play, yet a palpable undercurrent of anguish and melancholy resided beneath the sitars and harpsichords. Even the singles extracted from the album had a brilliantly deceptive optimistic quality. Did radio listeners realize that they were singing along to one man's torment about the dissolution of a love affair?

The real-life fortunes of both Jimmy Webb and the 5th Dimension dramatically contrasted with those of the protagonist in The Magic Garden. "Carpet Man" and "Paper Cup" climbed into the Top 40 in early-1968 while a cover of "Worst That Could Happen" by New York-based group Brooklyn Bridge became a Top 5 gold single the following year (The hit prompted the 5th Dimension's record label to re-release and re-title The Magic Garden with the title of the hit song) As "Carpet Man" commenced its run on the charts, the Johnny Rivers and Marc Gordon-produced title track of Up, Up and Away earned an astounding six Grammys at the 10th Annual Grammy Awards. That same year, Glen Campbell was awarded two trophies for his recording of Webb's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix".

Of course, the 5th Dimension would record many more of Jimmy Webb's compositions throughout its career, and Webb's collaborations with a number of legendary artists created one of the most respected song catalogs in popular music. The Magic Garden captures the songwriter and the group at a moment when all of the right elements conspired to deliver a seminal album. 5th Dimension co-founders Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. recently recalled the experience of working with Jimmy Webb on a pop music masterpiece (note: additional artist tributes to Jimmy Webb will appear in PopMatters' forthcoming interview with Jimmy Webb about his new album, Just Across the River):

Davis: It was Jimmy's idea for The Magic Garden to be a whole piece.

McCoo: It's a love story about him and a young woman and them falling in love all the way through to the break-up, which is pretty obvious from the lyrics.

Davis: Jimmy is probably one of the best songwriters I ever worked with. I got a chance to sit down with him and learn his songs and the meaning and the experience of them so I could interpret them. It was just amazing to talk to a young guy with that much depth. If you listen to the lyrics of his songs, they are so deep. You almost have to go to the dictionary to find out what the words mean!

McCoo: "Requiem: 820 Latham" is one of my most favorite songs that Jimmy wrote. I recite those lyrics to people when the subject of Jimmy Webb comes up and I always ask people if they are familiar with "Requiem: 820 Latham". Most of the time they aren't. When you start reciting those lyrics...

Davis: ...They're so meaningful that they bring tears to your eyes.

McCoo: Even today they still bring tears to our eyes. He sets the stage. He talks about, "When I came to you there in that cold telephone-pole-horror of the night". How did he come up with that?

Davis: It was like 12:30 or one o'clock in the morning. One of those times when people are home and it's just the nighttime. It's eerie. So many people come up to us and ask us about "Requiem: 820 Latham" and say, "What is he saying?" We explain it to them and they say, "Oh I got it". There's another song that he did (on Up, Up and Away) called "Rosecrans Blvd". You talk about poetic...you'd have to do a story just on that! When he was telling me this story, I looked at him and said to myself, 'But you're just 20 years-old! How do you come up with this stuff?' It sounds like a guy who's been in the world awhile.

McCoo: That is the genius of Jimmy Webb. We labored to get those notes right and he wouldn't accept anything less.

Davis: One of the great things about his songs is that they were so well put together musically that a lot of people thought they were simple. It sounded simple but they were hard. Even today, when people play "Up, Up and Away", they hear and they think, 'That's easy', but then they start trying to play it and go, 'What is this?'

McCoo: He's a genius and anybody who loves music and loves the best songwriting is going to appreciate Jimmy Webb. When you sing a lyric (from "Orange Air") like...

"I remember kissing her that sad last night through the screen so hard

I had a checkered mouth and nose

She sold out so quickly that before I knew what hit me

She was laughing with the others at my funny clothes"

....his lyrics are so visceral. They're not just poetic. They clobber you.

Davis: That's why I feel like he stands alone.

McCoo: You go down to your core to get Jimmy Webb. When Billy and I were talking this morning about what songs we might think about when we were talking to you, one of them was "Paper Cup". We were talking about how even though it's about a guy who's kind of drowned his life and sorrows in alcohol, that paper cup doesn't have to be about alcohol, it could be about escaping the pain of life that you're dealing with. We were told by a very dear friend of Michael Jackson's that "Paper Cup" was one of his most favorite songs. We were talking about what that song meant to Michael.

Davis: I would imagine that it made him think of how he'd withdraw into his little space.

McCoo: You really need to spend time with Jimmy's work because so much thought and so much feeling went into the lyrics, as well as the music and the flow of it. Sometimes when Billy and I are driving to Vegas, we put The Magic Garden album on and we are transported to the places that he's singing about: remembering the relationship (because we knew the young woman), remembering the hours that we spent on each song, remembering one night that we spent 16 hours on "Orange Air" and then we had to leave the studio, go home, and pack our clothes and go to the airport! We consider The Magic Garden to be one of our finest works. We were so thankful to have been a part of that project.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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