Before he actually became The Master of Time and Space to his fans, Leon Russell was manipulating everything but time and space on a psychedelic pop opus that nobody heard. The fantastically imaginative Daughters of Albion was, well, DOA in the commercial sense upon its initial release in 1968. Its blend of dense lyrics, elaborate vocal arrangements, shifting moods and an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-oh-hell-we’ll-throw-that-in-too approach to the musical accompaniment might have been too far out even for ’68. But you can decide for yourself on Now Sounds’ first-ever authorized CD reissue of this long-hidden gem (CRNOW 39).
Daughters of Albion was one of Leon Russell’s first production assignments, alongside its sister album, Look Inside the Asylum Choir (recorded by Russell and Marc Benno, who adds guitar to Daughters of Albion). This ambitious song cycle was the brainchild of arranger/producer Russell, vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Greg Dempsey, vocalist Kathy Yesse (later Dalton) and songwriter Dave “Luff” Linden, who departed the project in its early days. Dempsey brought his formidable songwriting skills to the table; he and Linden had already written songs for artists including Dino, Desi and Billy, and Vic Dana. With co-writer Jack Nitzsche, Dempsey had also provided Don and the Goodtimes with one of the most infectious, underrated songs of the entire decade, “I Could Be So Good to You.” (Though Russell didn’t contribute any songs to DOA, he and Dempsey would later team to pen songs including “Roll Away the Stone.”) Prior to DOA, Dempsey and Yesse were two-fifths of The Gas Company, a Reprise recording act that will be anthologized on a future Now Sounds release. Though he recorded the album in Hollywood, Russell enlisted his Oklahoma crew of musicians rather than the L.A. Wrecking Crew. Their participation lends DOA a different flavor than might have been expected.
This trip to a sonic carnival is a curiosity, no doubt, but occasionally a transcendent one. “I Love Her and She Loves My” (no, that’s not a typo), the album’s catchy opening track, marries Cowsills-esque bubblegum vocals to twangy, country-flecked guitars, with majestic, classical strings adding tension and gravitas. And that’s just the first song! Every track, with the exception of the closing suite, is a nugget of the three-minute variety, yet even the most straightforward pop songs here have some strikingly unusual element to them. The jaunty “Our Love is Growing” has offbeat vocalizations over a piano-driven instrumental bed that otherwise could have been plucked from one of Russell’s records with Gary Lewis and the Playboys. Shimmering harp opens the ethereal, Dalton-led “Candle Song” with its Pet Sounds bass figures and fragile music box quality. As sad, sensitive and strange as “Candle Song” is, “Ladyfingers” is brassy, with its bold, vaudevillian horns anything but subtle. The oom-pah band returns to cut loose on the mini-symphony “Hats Off and Arms Out, Ronnie.”
There’s sonic overload at times, as when Dempsey sings two different sets of lyrics in counterpoint on “Sweet Susan Constantine,” with Russell orchestrating Mamas and the Papas-style vocal answers from Dalton, piano reminiscent of Jimmy Webb, and even burbling water effects as the impressionistic lyrics ask, “Who shot John and who shot Bobby? Who shot Martin, Brother Malcolm? Who shot Andy, who shot me?” Daughters of Albion lyrically offers a sideways look at society, culture and love in all their many permutations. (Animation giants Disney and Hanna-Barbera also get name-checked in the bizarre lyrics of “Sweet Susan Constantine,” with Dempsey factually observing that “Hanna-Barbera does not rhyme!”) It’s arguable that a more razor-sharp focus might have commercially behooved Russell and co., but there’s no doubt that these artists stayed true to their vision.
“Good to Have You” is altogether lovely, with some Burt Bacharach-esque writing for the horns, and it’s not hard to ponder why this song wasn’t selected as the album’s single. “Hey, You, Wait, Stay,” too, could have made for a ravishing country ballad, but it takes on a different character in Russell’s arrangement, with its eerie, haunting whispered echoes.
In a way, though, it’s all just prelude for “1968 – John Flip Lockup.” If you turned on a radio in that year and kept switching the station for seven or so minutes, you might have heard something like the epic musical montage that closes Daughters of Albion. Dempsey’s opus takes in straightforward if spacey pop (“Alms and qualms and kumquats, Charlie,” goes one lyric) with a maddeningly memorable “Na-na-na-na-nineteen-sixty eight” refrain, before abruptly shifting to a bizarro string quartet fragment, a Chipmunks-esque snippet, kooky folk-rock, a Bob Dylan riff complete with harmonica and then a Beatles pastiche. Before long, even a demented calliope has appeared (“He’s smearing berries on his face and jumping to the ground….”) and producer Lou Adler and his Monterey Pop Festival are seemingly called out: “By the way, Lou, what really happened to all the kids’ money from Monterey?” The whole piece isn’t too far removed from some of the musique concrete experiments of Frank Zappa and the Mothers, and one gets the feeling that if Frank Zappa had decided to take his band in a more melodic pop direction, or ever teamed with Van Dyke Parks circa Song Cycle, the results might have sounded something like Daughters of Albion and “1968.” (Dempsey later composed and produced Kathy Dalton’s Amazing LP for Zappa’s DiscReet label.)
Now Sounds’ deluxe reissue is up to the label’s usual high standard. It adds two bonus tracks, both sides of Fontana single F-1619: “Well Wired” b/w “Story of Sad,” and includes two essays. Reissue producer/designer Steve Stanley supplies the fascinating main essay telling the story of the album with the participation of Dempsey, while Kristian Hoffman supplies an entertaining appreciation of the album’s merits.
In retrospect, Daughters of Albion likely never had a chance, and it couldn’t have helped that the album’s blurry and rather univiting cover artwork of a bare-chested hippie didn’t at all reflect the contents of the exuberant music within its sleeve. (Also never mind that only one member was a Daughter, and they weren’t British…even the name of the album must have proven an uphill battle!) Daughters of Albion is a time capsule of pure invention, with Leon Russell on the cusp of a career that would take him in a very different direction and Dempsey and Yesse at the height of their combined pop powers. It’s not always accessible, but it’s a trip well worth taking for the musically adventuresome among us.
Daughters of Albion, Daughters of Albion (Fontana SRF 67586, 1968 – reissued Now Sounds CRNOW 39, 2012)
- I Love Her and She Loves My
- Still Care About You
- Yes, Our Love is Growing
- Candle Song
- Sweet Susan Constantine
- Hats Off, Arms Out, Ronnie
- Good to Have You
- Hey, You, Wait, Stay
- Story of Sad
- 1968 – John Flip Lockup
- Well-Wired (Mono 45) (Fontana F-1619-A, 1968)
- Story of Sad (Mono 45) (Fontana F-1619-B, 1968)