Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Kat's Korner: The Complete Cass Elliot Solo Collection 1968-71

Gather round, kiddes, we got a history lesson.

Oh quit moaning! History can be fun sometimes. And this is musical history so even better.

Quick, long before Joan Rivers sat behind Johnny Carson's desk on The Tonight Show what female singer performed the same duties? Not sure. Okay, try this one: who was the first woman to sit down for The Rolling Stone Interview?

Are you guessing Janis Joplin? Wipe off your self-satisfied smirk because you're wrong. You in the back, the guy shouting "Grace Slick! Grace Slick!" You're wrong too.

Why don't you get right
Try and get right baby
You haven't been right with me
Why don't you get right
Try and get right baby . . .

Boys and girls, that's called a hint. But so that we can move this lesson along, let me give you the answer: Cass Elliot.

That's right, the former Mama Cass of the Mamas and the Papas.

Yes, I could have just hummed "Dream A Little Dream Of Me" and everyone would have gotten it, but that would have been a little too easy, wouldn't it?

The Complete Cass Elliot Solo Collection 1968-71 is a double disc set, packed with thirty-eight tracks. If "Dream A Little Dream Of Me" is where Cass begins and ends for you, do yourself a favor and get this album. There's a wonderful 28 page booklet with an amazing essay by Richard Barton Campbell, a two page note by Owen Elliot-Kugell (Owen is Cass' daughter), four pages of information on the tracks included and thirteen photographs (I think my favorite is the one on page twelve). And, let me repeat, there are thirty-eight tracks of music.

Did you grow up watching Pufnstuf (the film)? For the first time on compact disc, you get Cass' "Different." It's more than a song, it's a statement of purpose and Cass sings like no one else could. Cass was different.

The obvious giggle to that is, "No one's getting fat but Mama Cass" (John & Michelle Phillips "Creeque Alley"). Cass was a large woman, no question. She was also a large talent. I got an e-mail last week from a community member who'd taken a recent Zogby poll and they were asked to name the rock death of the seventies (it was worded a little better than that, the question was). The obvious choices were there (Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin . . .) The e-mailer wondered where was Cass?

Listening to this collection, I have to wonder that as well. There really wasn't anyone like her. And no one's come along to replace her. You don't cringe at any vocals here. Cass always sang the song. She didn't oversing it. There were no Olympic leaps to show off. She could have strutted through every song if she'd wanted to. She can hold a note as long as your average diva. Listening to all thirty-eight tracks, you'll realize how many notes she could hit and how a decision was made not to show boat on a song.

I think the biggest shock for me was her vocals on the verses of "Long Time Loving You." Those were notes I wasn't used to from Cass. After that song, track eight on the first disc, I started paying attention especially to the vocals and grasping how many notes were in her range and how she used them wisely to convey the song.

"What am I getting that I don't already have, Kat?"

Okay, good question. You're getting "Different," you're getting the album version and single version of "A Song That Never Comes," the B-side "All For Me," and you're getting to hear the songs. The ones you already know if you've got some Cass lps, you really don't know. My aunt was getting rid of her vinyl collection in 1987 and she passed it all on to me. I've got the albums, I know the songs. And maybe a vintage, never played, pristine vinyl would sound just as well but I doubt it. The transfer on these songs should be noted. Hip-O Select is an indpendent label and they've put a lot of time and care into this project.

They've also rescued two songs recorded for Cass' first album (Dream A Little Dream) that didn't make the cut. John Sebastian's "Darling Be Home Soon" and Joni Mitchell's "Sistowbell Lane" alone make this a must have. Another previously unreleased treasure is Terry Cashman, Gene Pistill and Tommy West's "For As Long As You Need Me."

The Mamas and the Papas recorded together for a very brief time (1965-1968; plus an album recorded to avoid being sued by the label) and Cass passed in 1974. Nine years of being publicly known and she's got a legacy. If you're unsure why, you need to get this collection. The simplicity and the sincerity in every song goes a long way towards explaining how she touched people and left a lasting impression. (One that continues to this day.)

As the divas of today overwhelm us with each song (to the point of tiring us and boring us -- we get it, you can leap from one octave to another), it's revolutionary to find Cass serving the song, track after track. Using her voice not to stun you, but to move you, Cass defines "singer." Olympian divas of today should pick the collection up to learn that chest beating gymansitcs aren't the same as singing. (Are you listening, American Idol kids?)

You should listen to the collection because the truth and beauty of Cass' talents are prominently displayed and no one's come close to matching what she did. You'll also appreciate, in an age where makeovers happen every ten seconds, that an artist can be true and moving. Like the great singers, the really great ones (Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, etc.), Cass' catalogue doesn't veer all over the map. There is a unifying vision to her body of work (as opposed to a lot of posing and play-acting).

But most of all, there is the voice. It's like nothing you've heard elsewhere. More than just knowing how to hit the notes (and chosing the notes wisely and sparingly), Cass knew how to shade and capture the meaning of a song.

In Richard Barton Campbell's essay, he notes Cass once said, "To my mind, it's the artist who makes a song a hit, not the song." My immediate comeback is "Vicky Lawrence, anyone?" But although songs often do reach the charts despite lukewarm (or even bad) singing, maybe Cass was talking about knocking it out of the ballpark, sending it out to the person in the last row?
If so, the artist, at least with Cass Elliot, does make the song a hit. She certainly stamps her identity and vision on everyone of the thirty-tracks in this collection.

The bad news is that The Complete Cass Elliot Solo Collection 1968-71 isn't available in stores. The even worse news is that only 5,000 copies exist. I'm attaching Ava & Jess' entry to this review both because it provides you with the information you need to check the album out (you can listen to samples from each track) and because Ava and Jess are college students. My point? Cass Elliot's legacy continues. The honesty of her singing attracts new listeners all the time. If you're not familiar with her, use the links provided by Ava and Jess -- Cass' voice is one you should know, she's an essential for anyone who values artistry in popular music.

Cass Elliot The Solo Collection 1968-1971 (heads up to new double CD collection)
Ava and Jess here and we're doing this entry together. Last week, we received an e-mail about an upcoming Cass Elliot collection and would have been happy to link to it but it's only come out this week.
It's entitled The Solo Collection 1968-1971 and it's a double disc set ($39.98) offered by Hip-O Select. There are 5,000 copies so if you're interested, you should consider checking it out."Different" is one of the songs on the collection and that's the song that C.I. noted in a "Five CDs, Five Minutes." That's not been on a CD before. In addition the collection contains "three tracks that had never been released in any form: Cass' cover of Joni Mitchell's 'Sisotowbell Lane,' a version of John Sebastian's 'Darling Be Home Soon,' and the Cashman, Pistilli & West tune 'For As Long As You Need Me.' They are revolutionary, and stand proudly with anything Cass released."
The first disc contains twenty-three tracks and the second disc contains fifteen. If you've bought a Cass collection (and Jess has many), you don't have a collection like this. You get "Dream A Little Dream Of Me," "California Earthquake," "Make Your Own Kind of Music," "I Can Dream, Can't I," "The Good Times Are Coming," and all the rest you know from other collections. But you also get tracks that aren't available in the CD format elsewhere.
There are no live tracks. The set focuses on Cass' singles from 1968 to 1971.
The Mamas and the Papas and Cass, herself, are very popular with community members so we wanted to do a heads up. And if there's a visitor who stumbles upon this entry and wonders, "What does music have to do with anything?" you're at the wrong site. Music is very important to the community. (And here's but one example of Cass and the Mamas & Papas popping up in an earlier entry.)
We'd asked C.I. if it was okay to note the set here when it came out because The Third Estate Sunday Review only publishes on Sunday and were given permission (actually, what we got was, "Why are you even asking? Of course."). So that's your heads up.
If you're interested and can afford it, great. If you're interested but might need to save up (understandable), hopefully this gives you some time to do that. If you're a Cass fan or a Mamas and Papas fan you'll probably get a kick out of checking out the album online even if you're not planning to purchase it.