Oof. Every so often you come across a hit album, be it a critical success or a popular success or both, which has aged really poorly. And the Mama’s and the Papa’s debut album has aged as poorly as their terrible use of the apostrophe in their band name.
So “California Dreamin'” is a rightfully famous song. If you pay too much attention to the lyrics, it maybe stops making sense entirely but, otherwise, it’s kind of a masterful demonstration of the powers of dynamics and arrangement in pop music. And “Monday Monday” isn’t anywhere near as good – and makes even less sense lyrically – but is still compelling enough; it’s easy to understand why it was a hit. Both these songs must have seemed so fresh and distinct and compelling when they came out, combining vaguely folk rock sounds, their signature vocals, and the Wrecking Crew’s Wall of Sound.
But the rest of the original material is significantly worse than the two hits, most of it is not memorable and suggests Phillips was not a particularly good songwriter yet (if he ever became one, I really don’t know because fuck that guy).
But nothing compares to their covers, which are atrocious. The two worst are “I Call Your Name” and “Do You Wanna Dance.” It’s as if they listened to these two songs and thought, “You know what? These songs are just way too energetic. What they need is to be sapped of all energy.”
They take “I Call Your Name,” one of my favourite early Beatles songs, and turn into some kind of country-ish faux Vaudeville/Music Hall thing, albeit without the comedy. It’s awful . Like, it’s gotta be one of the worst covers I’ve ever heard.
I’m most familiar with the Beach Boys’ version of “Do You Wanna Dance” so I don’t know if the Mamas and the Papas’ version (isn’t that better?) is inspired by an earlier version that was this dull, but this version makes the Beach Boys’ version feel edgy. Like what is going on here? It’s the worst kind of orchestrated folk pop. This song is about finding excitement on the dance floor.
Combined with the Beatles cover, it shows a real contempt for the material, or a contempt for actual rock and roll, or something like that. It’s crazy to me that people heard these versions of these songs and liked them.
“Spanish Harlem” is better but still lacks all of the drama of the original. And I don’t know the other covers but I assume, based on the three songs I know, that they are not good. (Because why would I assume otherwise?)
There are two good songs here. (One is great.) That’s it. The arrangements work on those two songs, and a few others but mostly sap the material of any energy and drama. Everything is extremely professional but the kind of professionalism that the punks later thought sapped the life out of music. People accuse the Beatles of ruining popular music by making it professional. But it’s groups like the Mamas and the Papas (isn’t that better?) who took pop rock to an overly professional place, sapped of energy and excitement (if not emotion). This is like the first signs of the coming of the Soft Sounds of the ’70s.
5/10 because it’s incredibly well made for the era, from a technical standpoint.