The Young Rascals (Atlantic '66) Rating: B+
Originally known as The Young Rascals, these Long Island, New York-based youngsters were originally known for their silly Little Lord Fauntleroy outfits (which they'd soon smartly ditch along with the "Young" in their name) but soon became synonymous with the term "blue-eyed soul," a label that they themselves were none too fond of (Felix Caviliere: "my eyes aren't blue"). Unlike other acts past (The Righteous Brothers) and present (Hall and Oates) who would be stuck with that moniker, The Rascals were definitely a rock 'n' roll band through and through; they just happened to be indebted to r&b (as well as the British Invasion) and were extremely soulful. Basically, by and large The Rascals' gritty bar band sound was comprised of Gene Cornish's spare, sharp guitar work (he also sang lead occasionally), Dino Dinelli's precise, energetic beats, Caviliere's moody Hammond organ and soulful vocals, Eddie Brigati's more boyish, extremely vulnerable vocals, and enthusiastic harmony vocals by all (minus Dino). Caviliere and Brigati were the primary songwriters, often in tandem, but they all contributed, though like most bands of the era most of their early songs were covers (in fact only one song on this first album was written by the band). Unfortunately, songs such as "Slow Down" (The Beatles), "Like A Rolling Stone" (Bob Dylan), "Mustang Sally" and "In The Midnight Hour" (Atlantic labelmate Wilson Pickett) are so indelibly linked to other performers that they come across as unnecessary here; the only one among these that I'm really fond of is "In The Midnight Hour," which has a brighter, more upbeat tint than Pickett's "Wicked" take. I also really like their version of "Just A Little" (Beau Brummels), which has moody verses, a catchy chorus, and a fittingly primitive overall sound, while "I Believe" features a passionate Brigati vocal and pretty Spanish guitars, even if it isn't all that compelling from a compositional standpoint. Which leaves four first class Rascals songs, starting with the slow, soulful, eminently singable "Baby Let's Wait" and peaking with arguably their signature song, "Good Lovin'," a catchy, clever, fun, energetic party tune that became a smash #1 hit, making the band, who had been together for barely a year, overnight sensations (p.s. the song was written by Rudy Clark and Arthur Resnick and was originally recorded by The Olympics a year earlier). The band's preceding single, "I Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore," like "Baby Let's Wait" written by Laurie Burton and Pam Sawyer, had stalled at #52, but it too was a catchy soul pop winner that still sounds great, while the album's lone band composition (by Cavaliere and Cornish), "Do You Feel It," was another fun, upbeat get-up-and-dance tune led by its groovy rhythm guitar, good brisk beats, some colorful keyboard embellishments, and eminently singable vocals (all together now: "you know I do!") on top of it all. In short, this band had an aggressive garage sound and an impeccable chemistry that I find instantly appealing; this site is called "rock and soul" for a reason, after all, and The Rascals epitomize both genres extremely well. The problem with this album is that too many of the songs are overly familiar or are somewhat generic. It's a debut album, in other words, and as such there are some growing pains, though overall the album features several outstanding songs and is rarely less than reliably entertaining.
Collections (Atlantic '67) Rating: A-
Some definite progress was made on the lamely titled Collections, as the band embrace songwriting, writing six of the album’s 11 tracks and showing a real talent for it, while also presenting a more polished sound without forgetting to rock out. There are still a few covers, including energetic versions of well-known numbers such as “Mickey’s Monkey” (popularized by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles and presented here in medley form along with The Sonics’ “Love Lights”) and Chris Kenner’s “Land of 1000 Dances,” but it’s the band’s original songs that make this album a minor classic in my opinion. There’s lots to love about “What Is The Reason” (like most of the best songs here, co-written by Caviliere and Brigati), which recalls Motown and Phil Spector but is also pure Rascals; it’s hard to even imagine later groups like Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes existing without songs such as this. The tambourine is a nice touch, Cornish adds a stinging guitar solo, Caviliere’s vocals are predictably soulful, and Brigati/Cornish join in on a catchy chorus. Plus, Dinelli is simply one of the greatest rock drummers ever, and the fadeout ending where Dino really shines features a too cool use of stereo separation, as the album is more adventurous and the studio techniques trickier than on their more straightforward, garage rockin’ debut. “Lonely Too Long” is Motown all the way and is another fabulous soul pop song, with Dino’s dynamic drum syncopations leading the way along with Caviliere’s colorful keyboards (Felix adds predictably strong lead vocals as well) and an undeniable chorus. On the ballad side, Brigati’s aching heartthrob vocals make the slowly smoldering “Since I Fell for You” and the classy, relaxed “More” (on which Felix’s keyboard solo almost steals the show) winners, while Cornish writes and sings (not as well) the pretty but pedestrian “No Love To Give”; Cornish and Dinelli also co-wrote the unremarkable rocker "Nineteen Fifty-Six." Still, those of you who might think for a second that these guys were wimps should check out the massive “Come On Up,” which is all about its tough chugging groove. The song is pure excitement, plain and simple; by contrast, their version of Eddie Holland/Norman Whitfield’s “Too Many Fish In The Sea” (previously popularized by The Marvelettes) is a slight but catchy sing along, and “Love Is A Beautiful Thing” is a bright and catchy classic on which Felix and Eddie duet on the verses before joining together on a wonderfully upbeat chorus (ok, I’ll concede that its “groovy” psychedelic vibe has aged a bit, but the song is still terrific). Like “Like A Rolling Stone,” “Mustang Sally,” and “In The Midnight Hour” before it, “Land Of 1000 Dances” has been done to death, so it seemed anti-climactic to me at first after “Love Is A Beautiful Thing,” but this truncated version of the song (2 minutes, no verses) builds so powerfully, getting louder and louder as it goes along, that I’m definitely ready to reconsider at the song’s conclusion. I should’ve known to trust these guys, as they mostly make all the right moves on Collections, on which the band’s skillful playing and unbridled passion are on ample display as their songwriting prowess grows by leaps and bounds.
Groovin' (Atlantic '67) Rating: A
The Rascals continue to improve, in part because, according to Steve Knowlton's review on his terrific Rascals Reference Page in tribute to his favorite band, "The Rascals found themselves enjoying enough success in the studio to add a couple of vital elements: they hired bass players, and added Eddie’s brother David to beef up the backing vocals. Both elements create a fuller-sounding production and the bass especially helps to emphasize the soulful tendencies of the band." Indeed, their ability to now hire top sessioners has resulted in a multitude of new instruments (harp, maracas, finger cymbals, saxophone, accordion, vibraphone, congas, bongos, tambourine, siren whistle, flute) appearing, and frequent horn interjections and lush orchestrations also contribute to a more experimental and exotic overall sound that nevertheless is still grounded in their soulful pop tendencies. Most importantly, the band has written another batch of flat out great tunes, with only one (terrific) cover, Stevie Wonder's "A Place in the Sun," presented here as a church-y pop ballad that's quite singable (the false ending only adds to the fun). Cornish's two tunes are much better this time, including "I'm So Happy Now," a catchy sing along that I can see being irritating if you're depressed but hopefully it'll cheer you up instead, and "I Don't Love You Anymore" (are these songs lyrical opposites or what?), a breathy ballad boosted by its toe tapping congas and/or bongos in the background. Elsewhere, "Find Somebody" is something of a surprise, with its Nuggets-styled psychedelic guitar; I like the way the riffs switch from the left to the right speakers (much like Dino's drums had at the end of "What Is The Reason," but if a trick works why not use it again?), and the song works extremely well, while "Sueno," with its groovy effects and Spanish guitar, and "It's Love," which improbably echoes the Jefferson Airplane, are also indebted to the psychedelic "Summer Of Love," though neither is quite as effective. Another notable song is "You Better Run," whose tough bluesy stomp was later resurrected as a hit by Pat Benatar, while "If You Knew" has nice layered vocals and a low-key yet catchy melody. But stellar though most of the aforementioned songs are, this album's best tracks are the big pop hits. "A Girl Like You" begins the album with ballad-like verses, but it soon erupts into its upbeat harmonized chorus, replete with jaunty horns; it's exactly this type of upbeat summertime pop hit that these guys are best remembered for. However, great though it is, "A Girl Like You" pales next to "How Can I Be Sure" and "Groovin'," two of the best songs ever, period. "How Can I Be Sure" is one of the great romantic ballads, lush and ethereal yet tastefully arranged and featuring Brigati's most beautifully emotional vocal. The horns and harmonized chorus also hit the right pleasure points, but it's the quieter moments that are the most spellbinding, particularly the finish, which is spectacular in its simplistic finality. "Groovin'" may be even better, being perhaps the ultimate "just chilling out in the summer" song. Again, the song is exotic but in an extremely relaxed and natural (and utterly gorgeous) way, and it's hard not to marvel at how far the group has come songwriting-wise in just a mere year. So, those of you who thought that The Rascals were just a great singles band (which they were above all else) or a minor band in any way, think again, as Groovin' made The Rascals 3-for-3 with no apparent letup in sight.
Once Upon A Dream (Atlantic '68) Rating: A
Wow, this sounds almost like a different group entirely from the one that recorded The Young Rascals. Like almost all of their contemporaries at the time, The Rascals were greatly influenced and inspired by The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper's, and this is a loose concept album - the concept being an optimistic view of an ideal world - whose dreamy, psychedelicized music leans more towards orchestral pop than the soulful pop rock of Groovin’. And while I more naturally gravitate towards the latter sound, this largely overlooked album, whose lone single “It's Wonderful” peaked at only #20, is an excellent endeavor within its realm, though the band’s psychedelic side is often curiously dismissed by critics who I have to wonder if they’ve ever actually listened to this album. Anyway, the between songs segues and effects are kinda silly, but they’re short and don’t really hinder the overall experience. Also, perhaps a couple of songs are overly slight, and the album is “dated” in a way that their previous three albums weren’t, but if you’re willing to escape to an uplifting alternate reality, this album’s out-of-time charm is sure to win you over, even if it might take several listens before doing so. After all, the album’s richly detailed sound, aided and abetted by producer Arif Mardin and engineer Tom Dowd (their George Martin and Geoff Emerick, so to speak), rewards repeat plays, and again the band has written a stellar batch of songs, even if the radio programmers of the day failed to recognize this. Bookended by the lushly dreamy title track, the former merely an intro tying it all together, the latter featuring a rare lead vocal from unofficial “fifth Rascal” David Brigati (who sounds like a more operatic Eddie), the album has its fair share of highlights, though I’ll only mention a few since this is an album that’s meant to be listened to as a whole whereas previous albums were more singles oriented. The aptly titled “Easy Rollin’” sounds like a combination of their own “I’m So Happy Now” and something that the Lovin’ Spoonful might’ve done, while “Rainy Day” delivers a delicate yet majestic romantic vision. The short but satisfying rocker “Please Love Me,” with Danelli’s syncopated beats and Cornish’s short sharp guitar bursts, is more like the old Rascals, though it adds exotic woodwinds into the mix as well, while the straightforward soul pop of “My World” and the bluesy Ray Charles homage “Singing The Blues Too Long” also recall The Rascals’ earlier roots. Still, these are the exceptions rather than the rule, and perhaps the album is best exemplified by “It’s Wonderful,” whose pure pop is distinguished by the band’s high-pitched harmonies, which are highlights throughout the album and which show what an asset David had become. Not to be outdone, “My Hawaii” is the obligatory dramatic ballad by brother Eddie, while the sitar-drenched “Sattva” is the most overtly “trippy” track, but again it’s likely that individual songs aren’t what you’ll remember about this album. Instead, what’s special about Once Upon A Dream is the way that it takes you on a journey to a different place, a better place where you can easily imagine this charming album being recorded the respect it deserves as the minor classic that it is.
Time Piece: The Rascals' Greatest Hits (Atlantic '68) Rating: A+
One of the best and most underrated singles bands of the ‘60s, The Rascals produced a sweaty, heady mix of rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues that epitomized the best days of summer. Simply put, “Good Lovin’,” “A Girl Like You,” “Groovin’,” and “How Can I Be Sure,” are among the best feel-good songs ever, as is “A Beautiful Morning,” which was previously a #3 hit single that made its first album appearance on Time Piece: The Rascals' Greatest Hits, which the All Music Guide called "arguably the greatest greatest-hits album of the '60s." I wouldn't argue too strenuously against that claim, though I personally would've replaced "Mustang Sally" and "In The Midnight Hour" with terrific album tracks like "Baby Let's Wait" and "What Is The Reason," and arguably the group's greatest hit wasn't released until an album later. As such, The Very Best Of The Rascals or The Ultimate Rascals, both of which contain "People Got To Be Free," are viable single-cd alternatives, or you can buy the excellent 2-disc Anthology (1965-1972) in lieu of splurging for the original albums, some of which are fairly hard to find; I therefore heartily recommend All I Really Need: The Complete Atlantic Recordings, 1965-1971, a 6-cd box set that contains all of the prime Rascals albums and then some. Anyway, I'm reviewing the 14-song Time Piece: The Rascals' Greatest Hits compilation primarily because it was a #1 hit and it was released at around their peak period, but really any of the excellent above-mentioned collections will do. As for "A Beautiful Morning," it's another gorgeously upbeat summertime pop song; Danelli's drum beats are perfect as per usual, Caviliere's lead vocal is first-rate and I absolutely adore those sighing "aah" harmonies, plus the impossibly bright horns hit the spot as well. Simply put, whenever I open my front door to a beautiful summer morning, and I'm glad to be alive and thankful for all the positive things in my life, this is usually the song that I hear in my head. Elsewhere, when The Rascals hit their mark on songs such as "I Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore," "You Better Run," "Come On Up," "Love Is A Beautiful Thing," "It's Wonderful," and "Easy Rollin'," few have ever done it better, and when they really hit their mark on "Good Lovin'," "Lonely Too Long," "Groovin'," "A Girl Like You," "How Can I Be Sure," and "A Beautiful Morning," all seems right with the world. I really love this band.