The story of It’s a Beautiful Day is a tale that could teach you young-uns out there a few things about the weird goings-on in the music industry:
- The band agreed to a management agreement with one Matthew Katz. Mr. Katz had already pissed off Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape to the extent that both were trying to dump him (though IABD didn’t know that at the time). Katz shipped his new find to Seattle for a spell, much in the same way a baseball team ships a promising young talent to the minors for more seasoning. They played in a ballroom that Katz ran on Capitol Hill that is now a storage facility, a place where the crowds were measured in handfuls. They spent a typically dreary, drippy Seattle winter living in an attic of a house Katz owned, trying to get by on a chintzy meal allowance.
- It’s a Beautiful Day eventually returned to San Francisco and started to play gigs without management permission, in violation of their agreement. I guess one unethical turn deserved another. This led to the opportunity to open for Cream (good) and the beginning of years of legal battles with Katz (not so good).
- That first big break almost led to a second: the chance to play at Woodstock. Unfortunately, they lost a coin flip to Santana. No shit.
- And just to make sure that you realize that this story has no heroes, there is some pretty compelling evidence that the song “Bombay Calling” on this album was written by an Oakland jazz saxophonist named Vince Wallace, and not by leadman David LaFlamme as listed.
- And just to add insult to Vince’s injury, Deep Purple then absconded the music from “Bombay Calling” for their song “Child in Time.”
It’s a Beautiful Day is their eponymous début album, and I have to say upfront that it’s not their best work. Their follow-up album, Marrying Maiden, was more consistent and somewhat more cohesive. On that album, they added a touch of bluegrass and a little bit of hillbilly to the mix and gave up any pretense of trying to be a blues-rock band. I don’t think they ever really settled on an identity, something I find very puzzling. It’s obvious to anyone who listens to this first album that their niche was slow-to-mid-tempo mood pieces integrating jazz and folk influences. When they tried to speed it up, get nasty or join the pointless jam crowd, they were way, way out of their league.
Consumers will find this a very conveniently structured work, particularly in an era where you don’t have to buy the whole album unless iTunes or Amazon zonks you with the ALBUM ONLY label for the one song you want. My shopping advice is easy to remember: get the first two songs and skip the rest. I might go with a third if I weren’t so totally sick of the faceless girl motif of the psychedelic era.
The time they spent in the Seattle attic wasn’t a total loss, for that’s where “White Bird” was born. One of the signature songs of the period, the song was written by David LaFlamme and then-wife Linda (who also handled the keyboards) to capture the experience of their Seattle imprisonment. There are two things that knock me out about this song: the arrangement and the late Pattie Santos’ vocal (David LaFlamme’s vocal is okay, but he tends to oscillate between too stiff and too emotive). The opening passage sets the mood right at the start with the softly played organ serving as an alt-drone (thankfully, they didn’t use a fucking sitar) and David LaFlamme’s pizzicato violin. I spent five winters in Seattle, my friends, and that is exactly what winter sounds like: the constant drone of gray skies relieved only by the splash of rain on the window pane. An acoustic guitar joins the vocalist in the verses, playing the rather simple chords in a syncopated, echoing rhythm. As the vocal duet proceeds, the best parts are when Pattie Santos and David LaFlamme are in perfect balance; unfortunately, LaFlamme has difficulty controlling his emotions from time to time and gets too loud and dramatic, like a guy watching a football match. Fortunately, you get used to it after a while because the mood of the song is so mesmerizing and soothing. LaFlamme was classically trained and a soloist with the Utah Symphony (not exactly a name band), which may explain both his vocal stiffness and his mastery of the five-string violin. You hear that most clearly in the violin counterpoints that complement the choruses and dominate the crescendo at the end of the minor-key bridges, and in the extended instrumental passage, a brilliant composition all by itself. In that passage, LaFlamme’s superior musicianship with the violin is crystal clear, and the rest of the band members all seem to raise their game in response, especially bassist Mitchell Holman. The lyrics to “White Bird” fall into the category of “supportive but not particularly remarkable.” What matters is the mood, and “White Bird” is a stellar example of mood-creation.
It’s a Beautiful Day does nearly as well on the second track, “Hot Summer Day,” once you get past the superfluous high-pitched organ intro. This is a slightly more up-tempo piece flavored with a light harmonica, reflecting the more comfy, laid-back feeling you get when summer arrives. Anyway, the duet vocal here begins as a modified call-and-response in the first two lines of the verse before the voices come together. Patti Santos sounds like the sweet scent of a soft summer breeze, and while LaFlamme gets close to overdoing it, he generally manages to keep his dramatic tendencies in check. The drum work from Val Fuentes is varied, dynamic and very complementary, and Mitchell Holman again supplies solid bass support. The lyrics are eminently forgettable, but hardly seem to matter. The band is playing to its strengths and all is right with the world.
And then, holy fuck! A loud, screechy electric guitar riff breaks the mood faster than a fart and David LaFlamme attempts to transform himself from a rather formal gent into a defective prototype of Robert Plant. This “song” is appropriately called “Wasted Union Blues,” and the emphasis on the word “wasted” cannot be strong enough. It gets even worse as they try to break up the rhythm and only end up breaking wind. Skip it!
“Girl with No Eyes” is very much a parlor piece in waltz time, its formality enhanced by celeste and harpsichord. I’m sure that some people will think this is a very lovely piece, but to me it sounds somewhat amateurish and the lyrics are a weird combination of the love-is-all cliché and a bad acid trip:
Girl with no eyes,
who can she be?
Girl with no eyes,
she’s looking at me.
who does she see?
she seems to be staring.
Doesn’t everybody know
love takes a lifetime?
And doesn’t everybody know
love is the eye sight?
It’s the eye sight of a lifetime
She’s just a reflection of all of the time that’s gone by.
She’s just a reflection of all of the time I’ve been high.
I guess all that would make sense to people who took golden sunshine daily with their morning meal, but I hear it as typical hippie fragmentation: when you run out of vocabulary, throw in some bullshit about love, love, love.
“Bombay Calling” is the subject of the Vince-Wallace-Deep-Purple dispute mentioned above. Personally, I like Vince’s version the best: it’s rather playful (which makes sense since Vince originally wrote it to poke fun at the stereotypical music Hollywood used to “portray something ‘Middle Eastern,’ Indian or Asian, Northwest Orient or the Land of Sky Blue Waters.”) Vince had a sense of humor! IABD’s version is competently played but they take the music way too seriously, as if they’re trying to communicate ancient wisdom. The piece melts right into “Bulgaria,” a song that pisses me off on multiple levels. First, the first two minutes are dominated by a high-pitched sound that is damned close to dog-only range and lingers in your eardrums for hours afterward. Second, I happen to love the music of Bulgaria, known for its wild time signatures, energetic instrumentation and emotion-laden but disciplined vocals; this piece is as far from Bulgaria as Council Bluffs, Iowa. Finally, why the fuck is this song called “Bulgaria?” The silly lyrics make no mention of Bulgaria, not even its famous 300-pound wrestlers and weightlifters:
When you’re in a dream
The time passes so slowly
When you’re in a dream
The time passes so slowly
Open up your heart
Go sleep on the moment you were born
Open up your heart
Go sleep on the moment love was born
Love for you and me
Let be all the love within you tonight
Love for you and me
Set free all the love within you tonight
In addition to plagiarism, I propose a charge of false advertising.
The album ends with one of those very, very long songs that came into vogue during the late sixties. I’ll have to do a count someday of how many long-form songs from the 1960s aren’t crushing bores, but that will have to wait until my old age when I can’t fuck anymore and need something to occupy the mind to ward away debilitation. “Time Is” is a nine-and-a-half minute drag where the band speeds up, slows down, speeds up, finally finds a rhythm and then stays on one chord for what seems like forever. LaFlamme babbles about eternity and “lovely time” in a senseless vocal riff and the band members contribute whenever the hell they feel like it. The lyrics tell you nothing about time that you didn’t already know, so if you’re looking for a more engaging song about time, see Chambers Brothers, The.
So, what we have here is a so-so album from a slightly confused band recorded in the waning days of psychedelia. Beyond the first two songs, there isn’t much to recommend it except for the iconic cover. Oh, well.
I was going to end my Psychedelic Series with this album, but two things have led me to reconsider. The first is that I hate ending a series on a so-so album, even if it is the ending of a series with so-so music.
The second is, well, goddamnitalltohell, I realized that there was one more album I absolutely had to do to bring the series to its proper close and bid “happy trails” to the hippies. No, I’m not talking about the Quicksilver Messenger Service, but the one album that I have tried to avoid and now can avoid no longer. Somehow it’s very fitting that the review of that album will come out on the day before my thirty-third birthday, guaranteeing that my anniversaire will symbolize my blessed and well-deserved liberation from the Psychedelic Era.
And I’m going to party like a bitch in heat times three. Without drugs.