The 5th Dimension

Greatest Hits on Earth (Arista '72) Rating: A-
One of this vocal group's hits, "California Soul" (not included here), sums up both their sound and their appeal, and for a brief while there in the late '60s the 5th Dimension had several significant hits, including a pair of #1 smashes ("Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" and "Wedding Bell Blues") and other top 10 hits such as "Up, Up, and Away" (which won a whopping 5 Grammys!), "One Less Bell To Answer," and "(Last Night) I Didn't Get to Sleep at All." Formed around the vocal talents of Florence LaRue, Lamonte McLemore, Ron Townson, and most notably Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo (the latter perhaps best known for her later stint hosting the TV show Solid Gold), the group were best known for popularizing songs from stellar songwriters such as Jimmy Webb and Laura Nyro, while some of the best West Coast session musicians (people like Hal Blaine and Larry Knechtel) provided the lush "soft rock" sound that let the group's tremendous vocal talents shine. True, these songs lack grit and are perhaps "guilty pleasures" more than anything, but the 11 songs on this brief but satisfying compilation certainly are pleasurable to my ears, beginning with the gorgeous "(Last Night) I Didn't Get to Sleep at All," which is carried by McCoo's lovely, at times almost operatic lead vocal. "Stone Soul Picnic" is the best of several more up-tempo if not exactly rocking efforts, the others being the admittedly corny (a lyric like "we can build a dream with love" is an example of why some people feel that the band's music hasn't aged well, but I'm a sucker for such optimistic hippie sentiments) yet still quite tuneful "Save the Country" and "Puppet Man" (are those wailing guitars I hear?). Speaking of hippie sentiments, "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In," a medley from the popular musical Hair, is one of the all-time hippy anthems, and though it does indeed sound dated, it sure is singable, plus there are those memorable horns (the band's songs often had impressive horn parts and/or string arrangements) and Davis Jr.'s memorable testifying at song's end. McCoo's great vocal (she really belts this one out) is the main attraction of their Motown-ish take on Nyro's "Wedding Bell Blues," which also has girl group elements and whose lyrics echoed her life at the time (she was currently engaged to Davis Jr.). McCoo's powerful lead vocals and the group's airy harmonies also highlight "Love's Lines, Angles, and Rhymes," and Wikipedia aptly describes Webb's "Up, Up, and Away" as a "canonical example of sunshine pop." Still, though that's what they're best remembered for, the group didn't only do lighthearted pop; their version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "One Less Bell To Answer" sees McCoo hopelessly, heartbrokenly in love, and again the group's haunting harmonies and surprising musical touches like an exotic Spanish guitar (producer Dayton Burr "Bones" Howe deserves at least some of the credit for such touches I suppose) make the song more substantial than it originally seems. Not that the 5th Dimension weren't lightweights to an extent, but hey not everybody can be Bob Dylan, and there's certainly room in my record collection for these tuneful hitmakers. If nothing else, they were certainly fine singers; their version of "Never My Love" is utterly gorgeous even if I still prefer The Association classic, while "Together Let's Find Love" is an impressive duet on which McCoo and Davis Jr. recall Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Anyway, Greatest Hits on Earth has most of the biggest hits from this fondly remembered group; those who want to dig deeper can try the original albums or the far more comprehensive Up-Up And Away: The Definitive Collection.

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