THE GREAT CURVE 016

THE GREAT CURVE 016
curated by Todd Berryman

Today’s album was one that was so good, it ended up in my catalog twice – the first time on 8-track, the second time on vinyl as a present for my fifth birthday.

Anne Murray
Love Song (1974)

This was not my first rodeo, when it came to Anne Murray. No, that honor went to Snowbird, a U.S. hybrid of two Canadian releases (This Way is My Way and Honey, Wheat and Laughter) which was pretty much in my life since birth, my first exposure to pop music on a record changer at the house of one of my mom’s friends. It was there, always present, for me the vinyl version of comfort food.

A few years later, it was the Danny’s Song 8-track, my first exposure to the title cut being from Anne, not the Loggins and Messina original. Although I later heard that and enjoyed it as well, my love went to hers, I think in part because it cut a couple of rather tricky lyric verses and made it more universal. You have to admit that losing the second verse that starts “Seems as though, a month ago, I was Beta Chi” opened it up for the non-Greek, non-collegiate types, so the song could be sung by anybody. Likewise, excising the third verse that begins “Pisces, Virgo rising is a very good sign” made it feel less…I dunno…like hippie twaddle.

Thing was that the divide from those two albums, and other material from the era, to Love Song, is more than just the song choices, or Anne Murray’s voice getting richer in timbre. Although Brian Ahern produced all of her recordings at that point, there was a definite sea change in how Love Song sounded compared to its predecessors, and I think I have an idea why.

Let’s provide a musical example to illustrate. Here’s the title track from the Snowbird album…

And here’s her performance of  “A Love Song”…

Now, you’ll notice that sonically the values of the two songs are different, but you might not be able to pin down why they sound that way. There are a couple of possibilities, one being that the microphones may be placed a little bit more intimately for the vocals and instruments, but the other seems more likely: my hunch is that Anne Murray’s pre-1974 albums were mixed so that they would sound more impressive over AM radio, which was then the dominant format. By the time Love Song and the albums that followed came around, they were very intentionally mixed to sound better on FM radio, which had moved from bastard stepchild to the stations that made money, to BECOMING the moneymaker. Pete Townsend has noted that advertising started to move heavily into FM broadcasting by 1972 – which was also the point that the album oriented rock format became less free-form and more codified (some might reasonably say “ossified” instead) – and it would be safe to say that by 1974, the year of Love Song‘s release, a good chunk of dollars was leaving AM and moving to its better-sounding sibling.

Compare the more pinched, midrange-heavy sound of the earlier song, versus the more resonant low end and more prominent high end of the latter, and then contrast this to the similar evolution of, say, the Beatles’ earlier material versus Abbey Road, and it feels much more evident. (It should be also noted that Abbey Road was really the first use of solid state electronics in their recording process, which also left its own fingerprints, and I suspect this may also be true with Anne Murray’s studio recordings evolving in a similar direction.) I can’t say that with any certainty; I can only go by the evidence of my ears and some knowledge of the prevailing technology at the time. It’s hard to deny, though: Anne’s vocals are distinctive on the earlier recordings, but more or less inhabit the same sonic ground as recordings by Helen Reddy or Linda Ronstadt from roughly the same era, although the sound of Linda’s albums started to change a bit earlier, probably a function of the studios from which she worked as much as anything else.

By the time we get to 1974 and Love Song, however, Brian Ahern’s production is pushing orchestrations that are less “shrill” and more full-bodied, and Anne Murray’s voice has become a little more obviously burnished, more lived in, and warmer and caramel-like. It’s pretty lush stuff, and it also paints her as a fine vocal interpreter in the style of a Frank Sinatra, but with a somewhat different songbook at the time. There is a texture to the recording that simply didn’t exist in her albums before, and that alone makes it count as a zenith in a certain space for the recorded arts.

For those who want to dismiss this album as fluff without really listening to it, I can only pity you, because the ingredients are very, very good. Besides the song choices and production, there are some big lions hiding out in the lineup here, including steel guitarist Ben Keith (on loan from fellow Canadian Neil Young!) and Mason Williams of “Classical Gas” fame (although there are no individual song credits, the style of the guitar on “Children of My Mind” sounds most obviously like his style). Then, there’s Mr. Ahern, who not only arranges and produces, but also adds guitar, bass and ukulele. His history also gets interesting later on, too…

Brian Ahern went on to produce – and marry – Emmylou Harris not long after this album, and his explorations with Harris on such great albums as Roses in the Snow feel to my ear like a continuation of the work started on Love Song. A certain realistic sound came into play, supplanting a needed artificiality for the requirements of small and crappy speakers in cars and portable record players, as the audiophile sensibility, or at least larger and better stereos, started to find a place in the average home.

This may also help explain why songs from the 1960s Motown era, or the early singles of the Beach Boys, don’t sound quite right to our ears in the modern age, which is that they were never designed for our stereo systems in the present. A few years ago, I actually did a little experiment once that might explain the logic here. I had copies of vintage albums by Traffic, the Beatles and the Jimi Hendrix Experience on CD, in some cases with their caveats in the booklet or on the back of the jewel case noting that “because of their high resolution, the compact disc can reveal limitations in the source tape.” And to be fair, that was true, played on a modern stereo…but what I noticed when I flipped over to an era-appropriate amplifier from the early 1970s, with Tannoy Speakers of the same age, was that these recordings sounded incredibly right in a way they hadn’t before. If you play Motown artists or early Beach Boys in a mono car system, or a transistorized portable player, the same thing happens, and we discover that the medium is the message.

This can easily be extrapolated to acoustically-cut 78s on a wind-up gramophone, for the same reasons. Matter of fact, one of the best remastering jobs I’d heard of Enrico Caruso’s material was done in the early 1990s, when someone decided that, rather than simply put Caruso’s 78s on a turntable in the vacuum of a studio, and then trying to pitch-correct and fiddle around to compensate for the constant sound of a change in speed, why not actually use a hand-cranked gramophone on a concert hall stage, and let the speed correct itself in the process? The result was something that not only sounded more accurate from a speed perspective, but also reflected how Caruso probably would have sounded in his natural habitat, the stage. Some listeners considered it a travesty, but I thought it was much closer to the reality of the idealized experience of those performances.

Anyway, I’ve gotten a bit far afield of my point, which is basically that Love Song is an album that sounds better to these ears because it was the first one really designed to sound like it fit the modern environment, circa 1974. This leads to the second point, which is that the material for this particular Anne Murray album was a more perfect, yet more varied, selection of compositions. She resurrected a Doris Troy song that had been off the map for over a decade and deserved a new hearing, as the 1974 version of “Just One Look” found Murray bringing a surprising grit to her delivery, with an arrangement that brought a whole new angle to the song. (Irony of ironies, Doris Troy Payne was over in England helping Pink Floyd by doing background vocals on The Dark Side of the Moon around the same time.) There’s a brace of songs associated with Loggins and Messina again, following from the prior album’s appearance of “Danny’s Song” in 1973, with “A Love Song” and “Watching the River Run” getting attention this time. More soul appears in the song “Backstreet Lovin'” on Side 2, echoing the position of “Just One Look” on Side 1, with much of the same style brought to bear.

There are a couple of cuts built around ukulele in their arrangements, “Real Emotion” being the Side 1 closer and “Send a Little Love My Way” doing the same for Side 2, although they use it in that fashion that reminds me of the 1920s rather than Hawaii. “Another Pot O’Tea” probably includes one of my favorite full-length lyrics, a song of transition at one of life’s darkest times (which hooked in for me pretty much from the line “’cause I’m in love with the Irish accent/to your stories”). “Children of My Mind” is one I return to when my creative urges are waning, and I wonder what the hell I’m doing with my life. 🙂 And then there’s that delicious reading of the Beatles’ “You Won’t See Me” from Rubber Soul, nearly doubled in length, adding some tasty saxophone and fuzz guitar to a song that felt lighter in its original form (it’s been said that John Lennon thought the Murray performance was one of the best covers of a Beatles song, and I can see why).

Love Song ultimately sounds to me like an album that really holds together as an album – there are really no misfire moments, even with the stylistic swing of this album compared to its predecessors, which were pretty tightly hewn to folk and light pop. This one goes wide in every direction, from song selection and arrangement to performance and engineering. All the goods are here, for those who want to hear them.

Further research:

Here’s the whole playlist for the Love Song album (which, I should note, in spite of how YouTube/Capitol have it labelled, does not have the definite article “A” in the album title; it only appears in the song). I would have picked and chosen songs from this, but it’s really all too good to not be considered as a whole work.

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