Monday, May 16, 2011

Margo Guryan - Take a picture (1968)



Born in a New York suburb, songwriter extraordinaire Margo Guryan ironically enough grew up to create one of the most exquisite and appealing, if little heard, one-shot "California" (although actually recorded on the East Coast) soft-pop gems of the kaleidoscopic late '60s (copies have fetched upwards of 200 dollars on the collector's circuit), before gradually disappearing from the scene. Despite the brief shelf life of her commercial career, her musical legacy actually proves far-reaching, stretching across various decades and serving several roles, from serious composer to reluctant performer to songwriter-for-hire and producer to teacher. Her single released album also resonated throughout the pop underground of the 1990s and beyond, serving as a primary inspiration for bands and artists like Wondermints and Linus of Hollywood. 


Margo Guryan began her musical path as a child, taking up the study of piano in the first grade and continuing through high school and into Boston University, where she studied classical music even though she was attracted to certain kinds of pop music, particularly jazz, which she had fallen in love with in high school. Never a fan of performing, Guryan switched from her piano curriculum, for which she would have had to complete a senior recital, to composition in her sophomore year at Boston. Her pop and jazz compositions began garnering immediate attention. Chris Connor became the first artist to record one of her songs, "Moon Ride," which she released on Atlantic Records in 1957. 


The summer after she graduated from college, Guryan spent three weeks at the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts, where Ornette Coleman and Gary McFarland were fellow students and the teaching staff included Bill Evans, John Lewis, Milt Jackson, Jim Hall, Max Roach, and Gunther Schuller. Lewis and Schuller signed her to MJQ Music once the session was completed and gave her the assignment of turning Coleman's "Lonely Woman" into a vocal version. Guryan's whole relation to the pop music world morphed, however, when fellow jazzbo Dave Frishberg introduced her to a record that changed her life: the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows." She began listening to any pop/rock music that she could get her hands on and altered her own songwriting tendencies accordingly. After working up a catalog of her own originals, jazz producer Creed Taylor sent Guryan to Columbia's publishing company, April-Blackwood, and manager David Rosner (her eventual husband) was sufficiently impressed enough to set about recording with her an album of her songs. Take a Picture appeared on Bell Records in 1968, by which time Spanky & Our Gang had already recorded a hit version of one of the songs, "Sunday Morning." The album earned positive reviews, but any wider attention was sacrificed to her performing aversion. 

As a songwriter, though, it was a thoroughly productive period for Guryan. Claudine Longet, Jackie DeShannon, and Astrud Gilberto all released versions of "Think of Rain" (while Dion and an impressed Harry Nilsson also recorded unreleased versions). "Sunday Morning" was also a hit for Oliver, and it was recorded by Julie London, and Bobbie Gentry and Glen Campbell, among others. Other songs were placed with London, Carmen McCrae, the Lennon Sisters, and Mama Cass Elliot. 

Guryan continued composing through the end of the '60s and into the '70s. She moved with her husband to Los Angeles and tried to stay current by writing a few "Watergate" and "earthquake" songs, eventually even succumbing to the disco trend for a single effort, but her personal connection with the music had begun to wane, and she turned to producing other artists. Gradually she began to study and practice classical music again with Howard Richman, the teacher she had originally found for her stepson. She, in turn, became a teacher, and took up composing again in the '90s as a teaching aid for her students. By the end of the decade, interest in her 1968 album had come full circle, garnering raves among pop aficionados, not only in the United States but also in Japan, England, and Europe, while a new generation of artists began embracing her lovely pop songs once again.

1 Sunday Morning 2:20
2 Sun 2:36
3 Love Songs 2:37
4 Thoughts 2:25
5 Don't Go Away 2:04
6 Take a Picture 3:08
7 What Can I Give You 2:31
8 Think of Rain 2:25
9 Can You Tell 2:34
10 Someone I Know 2:46
11 Love 5:24

Bonus Demos:
12 I Think a Lot About You 2:11
13 It's Alright Now 2:24
14 Timothy Gone 1:48

Routinely selling for huge sums of money on the vinyl market and making its way into the collections of pop fanatics as far afield as Japan, Take a Picture has taken on a dynamic life of its own since its 1968 release, especially for an album that went relatively unheard at the time. It is not difficult to figure out what all the retroactive acclaim is about once you hear the sweet, delicate strain of gently kaleidoscopic music on the sole album from Margo Guryan. It is the soft pop of which gauzy dreams are made, full of the hazy changes and transitory variations of autumn, an album that you invariably want to wrap up in. Better than most similar efforts from the time, the album maintains a vibrant resonance outside the milieu in which it was created because the songcraft is not only infectious but also highly intelligent, and because Guryan's performance is so delicious. Perhaps a bit too thin and breathy for mass consumption, her voice is an acquired taste in an era loaded with wispy pop princesses, not to mention brassy belters such as Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, and Mama Cass. Once you accept its whispery invitation, though, Guryan's singing, equal parts girl group innocence and seductive torch, envelops you. The thing that really elevates her above many of her contemporaries and competitors for the soft rock tiara, though, is her wonderfully idiosyncratic songwriting capabilities. A classically trained pianist and jazz composer by education and trade, her songs are much more than your standard pop fare. Although the song structures are simplistic on a superficial level (which should have made them perfect nuggets for commercial radio play in 1968), the arrangements beneath them are anything but. There are all kinds of intriguing things going on with or underneath the melody, either instrumentally (hammy trombones, old-tavern piano, touches of sitar) or via affect. Just when you think a chorus or hook is as ethereal as it could possibly be, Guryan tweaks it just slightly enough that it rises even higher and takes you to an even more elevated emotional plane. She manages the difficult trick of cajoling something already beautiful to something truly sublime. There is also an expert, fluid balance of juxtapositions within the music. Tempos are shifted frequently but seamlessly, and Guryan's chord progressions tend to switch from balladic choices during the slower verses to sly and unconventional jazz progressions during the quicker paced breaks and bridges, with the influence of bossa nova particularly heavy in many of the tunes. Her classical background is spliced into the mix as well, generically via the orchestral splashes of various songs, but more explicitly on "Someone I Know," where her own pop melody is superimposed over the chorale of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." The two fit perfectly, point and counterpoint, like the complex pocket symphonies of Brian Wilson, a huge influence, and far more interesting with each listen. Other highlights include her own version of "Sunday Morning," the breezily kittenish "Sun," and the tough go-go groove of "Don't Go Away," but really every song is a gem. The CD reissue, housed in a handsome special edition digipak with a 12-page booklet that contains a brief biography, liner notes, and lyrics, also includes three stellar bonus publisher's demos that mark a significant addition an album that was already one of the most endearing cult soft rock records from an era full of them.
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