Monday, February 20, 2006

Best-Albums-You've-Never-Heard Department: The Millennium, Begin

The Millennium
Taking advantage of the temporary slowdown in new releases that tends to follow the Christmas season, I've been once again stocking up on reissues as well as filling in some of the blanks in my collection. And, kicking myself for having put it off so long, I finally snagged one of those "great lost classics" of the 60's that actually lives up to its rep as one of those great fucking records that you just can't believe has been so universally overlooked. The album is Begin by sunshine pop pioneers The Millennium. First released in 1968 and available these days only as part of the 3-cd retrospective Magic Time, Begin, though not for everyone, is a pretty amazing piece of work.
The Millennium were the brainchild of Curt Boettcher, one of the key masterminds of sunshine pop -- the painfully cheesy yet intermittently endearing genre of music characterized by soaring harmonies, sappy strings, hummable memories, and cheery lyrics full of rainbows, love and, well, sunshine. (The Mamas & Papas, the Association [who were often produced by Boettcher], and the Cowsills are some of the better known purveyors of the genre, though the late vocalist/songwriter/producer Boettcher upped the ante a notch by infusing his songs with just a touch of acid-drenched psychedelia.)

After various production duties, Boettcher first assembled studio project The Ballroom around 1966, recording a series of catchy mid-60's pop tunes (pretty much all of which can be found on the Magic Time compilation, including both finished product and demos). Boettcher then hooked up with Brian Wilson partner Gary Usher (perhaps best known for his production work on Pet Sounds, alongside work he did with other bands including the Byrds); the two collaborated on Present Tense, a 1968 album issued under the moniker Sagittarius. Present Tense melded sunshine pop and psychedelia, and included a handful of (slightly) reworked Ballroom tracks. I find the album a tad overrated, though "My World Fell Down" is a fantastic pop track, and "The Truth Is Not Real" is one of the best examples of psychedelic pop ever recorded.

Boettcher then assembled the Millennium, whose Begin was a slight extension beyond Present Tense. There's still plenty of sunshine pop -- in all its cloying glory -- and some straightforward pop; but the real standouts are the more ornate, psychedelic tracks, where Boettcher really worked his way around the studio. The opening couplet of "Prelude" and "To Claudia On Thursday" may be the pinnacle of pop-psych, an unforgettable melody coupled with Boettcher's trademark sunshiney harmoneys and almost Zappa-esque weirdness in the margins. A few other tracks, particularly the run of trippy numbers at the end of the album, are nearly as memorable. Even those put off by the rainbow-happy sunshine pop numbers would have a hard time dismissing the musical near-genius lurking behind much of the album.

Of course, in order to hear Begin, you'll need to invest in the not-exactly-cheap Magic Time, which is probably far more Boettcher than you really need in your collection. (In addition to the Ballroom and Begin discs, you also get a third disc of various Ballroom, Millennium, Sagittarius, and solo Boettcher demos -- some of which sounds plenty nice, but is hardly essential. Plus, a lot of the tracks, particularly the Ballroom singles, are mastered in mono, with a slightly shrill tendency towards the treble.) But if that's what it takes to get your hands on Begin, then fans of well-crafted, lightweight but pleasant 60's pop may want to seriously consider the investment.


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