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Review: The Beau Brummels, “Bradley’s Barn: Expanded Edition”

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Before Abbey Road or Caribou, The Beau Brummels immortalized a famous recording studio as the title of Bradley’s Barn, their 1968 album for Warner Bros. Records.  The San Francisco pop-rock outfit had travelled to Nashville, Tennessee to record at Owen Bradley’s storied venue at roughly the same time their contemporaries, The Byrds, were on the other side of town cutting Sweetheart of the Rodeo.   Though the “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” hitmakers beat the Brummels to the punch with a release date of a few months earlier, Bradley’s Barn made similar strides in defining the sound of what would become known as “country-rock.”  Finally, Bradley’s can be put in perspective with the release of Rhino Handmade’s lavish tribute to what may be the Brummels’ finest LP.  Housed in a sturdy hardbound book, the expanded Bradley’s Barn (RHM2 524919) makes the case for a band that ultimately looked forward by looking back.

Strictly speaking, however, this wasn’t the Bay Area-vs.-the-British-Invasion band of “Laugh, Laugh” and “Just a Little” fame.  That lineup of Ron Elliott, Sal Valentino, Dec Mulligan, Ron Meagher and John Petersen had scaled the heights of fame (and even were immortalized in animated form as The Beau Brummelstones on The Flintstones!) before dissolving, bit by bit, after those early glory days.  Meagher departed during sessions for the psychedelia-tinged Triangle in 1967, leaving Valentino and Elliott as the architects of Bradley’s Barn.  The third major influence was that of producer Lenny Waronker, who was building the rosters of Warner Bros. and Reprise in A&R while spearheading the careers of artists like Randy Newman and Harper’s Bizarre, a founding member of which was the Beau Brummels’ John Petersen.  After producing Triangle, Waronker hit on the notion that Elliott and Valentino should record in Nashville.  (He says he was partially inspired by Dylan’s travels there – but then, who wasn’t?)  Other acts had a similar “back-to-the-land” trajectory after experimenting in psychedelia, some spurred on by the success of The Band’s first album, released in July 1968.  But a country-rock synthesis was long ingrained in The Brummels, as could be heard on their 1965 cut “Dream On” and even on Triangle with its Merle Travis cover, “Nine Pound Hammer.”  Bradley’s brought those tendencies to the fore.  But the sophisticated Waronker didn’t equate country with simplicity; instead, he envisioned a “guitar orchestra” that would still push the sonic envelope while embracing the best that the Nashville sound had to offer.

Hit the jump to join us down at Bradley’s Barn!

A major part of the Beau Brummels formula was Sal Valentino singing the songs of Ron Elliott.  True to form, Elliott contributed to all but two songs on the album, though he and Valentino wrote together and apart.  Lyricist Bob Durand contributed to a few tracks, too.   Waronker’s production complemented the earthy, sometimes complex songs, with shimmering acoustic guitars assaulting the listener as the album begins, in a stereo spread.  Valentino’s deep, growling vocal adds resonance to Durand and Elliott’s “Turn Around” (later recorded by The Everly Brothers with its edges smoothed out) and the haunting song of pointed regrets, “Love Can Fall a Long Way Down.”  An array of Nashville pros contributed to the sessions, including future Neil Young and Crazy Horse producer David Briggs on keyboards and Jerry Reed on guitar and dobro.  As expected for a Waronker production, the instrumental textures are diverse, with a sweeping string arrangement bringing additional color to “Cherokee Girl.”  Elliot and Valentino wade into a sort of baroque country in “Deep Water.”  More traditional is the twangy “Long Walking Down to Misery” as well as “The Loneliest Man in Town,” a ringer for a classic Nashville tune.  By and large, though, sonic experimentation with folk and country forms was the order of the day, as heard on the time signature-shifting “Jessica,” a song previously attempted in Los Angeles, with the memorable, repeated cry of “Oh no, no, no, Jessica/What have you done to me?”  Elliott’s lush songs aren’t instantly accessible, but warrant multiple listens.

Despite being recorded in Nashville, the Beau Brummels didn’t turn their backs completely on their California home.  Long before he loved L.A., Randy Newman offered “Bless You, California” to the Brummels via his close friend and their mutual producer Waronker.  (The Brummels had also previously cut Newman’s “Old Kentucky Home” on Triangle, and bothValentino and Elliott participated in sessions for Newman’s 1968 debut album.) The offbeat song is enhanced by odd percussion accents and has a quintessential Newman melody, which Valentino appropriately drawls in the style of its composer: “Bless you, California/You’re the only state for me…”

The original album consists of only eleven tracks, but that number has been increased to an incredible 38 (!) thanks to the herculean efforts of producers/excavators Andrew Sandoval and Alec Palao.  Fourteen of those are previously unissued, with some of the other tracks having first appeared on Handmade’s definitive 2005 box set Magic Hollow.  This abundance of riches is a real Bradley’s Barn-storming!  There are outtakes (“Tan Oak Tree” and “Another”), demos, singles and alternate versions that open a window into the fertile environment that led to the album’s creation.  In fact, that environment seems best described by two words: “anything goes.”

That was the title of a 1934 Cole Porter tune that was borrowed by Harper’s Bizarre for the group’s 1968 Warner Bros. album produced by Lenny Waronker and featuring two songs by Randy Newman.  Elliott and Valentino were in this orbit, with former Brummel John Petersen now a member of Harper’s.  (No wonder the Warner Bros. records of the time felt of a piece; artists were rarely more than a couple of degrees of separation from their labelmates. Ron Elliott became involved with the Everly Brothers through Waronker, who produced their not-dissimilar album Roots, writing, arranging and playing on their single “Empty Boxes.”  They also covered “Turn Around” on Roots.)  The Harper’s style is evident on the originally-unissued “Bittersweet,” a Valentino/Elliott co-write given a theatrical arrangement and played to perfection by the Los Angeles Wrecking Crew.

The greatest oddity on the second disc of Bradley’s is a Reprise single of Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s 1933 standard “42nd Street,” credited to “Lionel Reeves and Stella Parker,” a.k.a. Randy Newman’s brother Alan and Deirdre LaPorte!  When it crept out as a Reprise single in 1969, few knew that Sal Valentino and Ron Elliott were singing and playing, respectively, alongside Randy and Hal Blaine, who apparently suggested the whistling break! It followed “Chattanooga Choo Choo” (Harpers Bizarre), “I Got Rhythm” (The Happenings) and “Ding Dong, The Witch is Dead” (The Fifth Estate) as a standard given a new coat of paint by the younger generation, but didn’t match the success of any of those tracks.  The influence of Randy Newman is also felt on the previously-unreleased 1967 “I Love You, Mama,” on which Valentino’s vocal delivery sounds similar to that of his contemporary.

There’s so much good stuff here that the extras spill onto Disc 1 after the album proper, as well as filling Disc 2.  Many of the demos have a low-key, sometimes austere feel that’s both hypnotic and transporting, like “Black Crow.”  Not the Joni Mitchell song of the same name, “Crow” is both eerie and atmospheric, with impressive guitar work by its writer, Elliott and a passionate vocal by Valentino.  There are also alternate takes a-plenty.  “Deep Water” as recorded in Hollywood is a little funkier than its Nashville counterpart, but also a little less haunting.  James Burton joined the Wrecking Crew on that one.  The alternate recording of “Jessica” shows just how far Waronker and co. were willing to go to experiment, even including Jim Horn’s subtle saxophone .  From the rough-hewn demos to the polished productions, the expanded set offers a vivid snapshot of the creative process.

There are tantalizing, if fleeting, glimpses of how The Beau Brummels might have progressed had Elliott and Valentino not chosen to go their separate ways after Bradley’s Barn.  There are eight exciting solo tracks by Sal Valentino, all fascinating but showing an artist searching for a sound.  Van Dyke Parks co-produced two 1969 singles included here, the jaunty “Alligator Man” and Spider John Koerner’s “Friends and Lovers,” rendered in dreamlike fashion thanks to Parks’ collaborator Kirby Johnson’s orchestral arrangement.  The next year, Valentino was joined some of California’s hippest rock cognoscenti when Leon Russell, Clarence White and Ry Cooder played on “Silkie” and “A Song  for Rochelle.”  Yet another direction for the singer is hinted at via a brace of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash covers.  The electric rave-up on Cash’s “A Little at a Time” sounds radio-ready, and Dylan’s “Down in the Flood” likewise impresses.  The set’s bonus material concludes with a 10+ minute interview with Norman Davis of San Francisco’s KMPX-FM, recorded in October of 1968 to coincide with the release of Bradley’s.  The loose, freewheeling interview meanders a bit, though there are choice observations (“The musicians bring their guns [to the studio in Nashville]!”) in between the disc jockey’s constant apologies for forgetting what he intended to say next!

Steve Stanley, the Now Sounds guru who has designed some of Rhino’s most attractive box sets of late, has created another beautiful object here.  The Bradley’s Barn set is designed in the style of a lived-in, antique book you might discover on your uncle’s mantel, with appropriately sepia-tinted pages, plentiful photographs, some lovely hand-drawn illustrations and floral motifs.  There’s even a table of contents for the 40-page book, directing readers to the perennial hipster Stan Cornyn’s original liner notes, Alec Palao’s exceptional historical essay, and the track-by-track notes.  Elliott, Valentino, Waronker and Durand have all contributed.  This is how it’s done, folks!  The short-lived, highly-stylized Warner Bros.-Seven Arts shield is a treat on the vintage-style CD labels and front cover, and the discs themselves are snugly housed in slots on the front and back inside covers.  Dan Hersch and producer Sandoval have remastered the tracks in a crisp, present fashion.

The catalogue biz will always thrive on deluxe reissues of familiar titles (Quadrophenia, Band on the Run, Nevermind) but with any luck, those heavy-hitters will continue to pave the way for more unexpected treasures such as Rhino Handmade’s Bradley’s Barn.  This deluxe edition feels like a labor of love, through and through.  It’s exhaustive but never exhausting, and the presentation not only complements but enhances the music within.  “Bless you, California,” for certain, but also “Bless you, Nashville” for this priceless musical offering.

Written by Joe Marchese

August 3, 2011 at 12:21

2 Responses

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  1. Hooray! Now an expanded edition of Triangle? That, too, would be sweet.

    Tim Hunt

    August 3, 2011 at 13:44

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