Earlier this year, the Raven label collected The 5th Dimension’s first four albums, all originally released on Soul City between 1967 and 1969, as a 2-CD set. Now, Raven is happily continuing the story of Marilyn McCoo, Billy Davis Jr., Florence LaRue, Lamont McLemore and Ron Townson with a second collection of four albums on two CDs. 4 Classic Albums: Portrait/Love’s Lines, Angles and Rhymes/Individually and Collectively/Living Together, Growing Together has the group’s four Bell Records studio albums from 1970-1973 which found The 5th Dimension and producer Bones Howe exploring new musical avenues. Within the lush “champagne soul” framework, Howe and the group members crafted these albums with great depth and an often surprisingly personal feel.
Portrait, the group’s first album of the 1970s, was a typically classy set that blurred the lines between pop and soul. Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “One Less Bell to Answer” was one of those curious songs written during Bacharach’s purple period which the composer never got around to arranging himself. Keely Smith introduced the dramatic rumination on a breakup to little fanfare in 1967. But The 5th Dimension’s rendition was transcendent; McCoo’s indelible, wrenching vocal brought out the nuances in Hal David’s lyric which once again showed his mastery of finding poetry in the everyday. With an elegant arrangement by Bob Alcivar and Bill Holman worthy of Bacharach himself, “One Less Bell” went all the way to No. 2 Pop. (Note that all four albums feature the impeccable playing of the famed Wrecking Crew.) Two more Top 30 Pop singles were scored with Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield’s funky, slightly naughty “Puppet Man” and Laura Nyro’s timely admonition to “Save the Country.” This diverse album also found the group stretching out with the jazz vocalese of Alcivar’s “Dimension 5ive,” giving Dave Mason’s rocking “Feelin’ Alright” an R&B makeover, and melding the strains of Sam Cooke and The Rascals into “The Declaration,” a medley with Vietnam Era-resonance. Like Nyro, Jimmy Webb was a key figure for the group, and his dark, reflective “This is Your Life” was another stirring ballad showcase, this time for Florence LaRue.
1971’s Love’s Lines, Angles and Rhymes (sequenced non-chronologically as the first album on the second disc of this set) took its name from Dorothea Joyce’s beguiling, moody ballad also memorably recorded by Diana Ross. Like Portrait, Love’s Lines was filled with varied material yet stands as a strong, cohesive collection of songs. The effusive, uptempo “Time and Love” and the word of warning “He’s a Runner,” the latter with a lead by Florence LaRue, both came from Laura Nyro’s distinctive pen. McLemore, who had co-written “A Love Like Ours” on Portrait with Bob Alcivar, offered up “The Singer” here, composed with “Got to Be There” writer Elliot Willensky. Davis took the strong lead on the ballad as well as on a lovely, relaxed version of Paul McCartney’s “Every Night.” Underscoring Howe’s knack for finding a great song regardless of its origins, Love’s Lines also has a Harry Nilsson tune (“The Rainmaker”), a Motown cover (Junior Walker and the All-Stars’ “What Does It Take?), and a contemporary Broadway cut (“Light Sings” from The Me Nobody Knows). Gerald Wilson’s “Viva Tirado” even gave a Latin spin to the group’s trademark sound.
Individually and Collectively (1972), as the title indicated, boasted a typically strong collection of varied material from the day’s top tunesmiths with spotlights for the individual members (with soloists credited on the sleeve) as well as for the delectable group harmonies. Marilyn McCoo’s two big solos couldn’t have been more different, but she delivered with aplomb on both. Tony Macaulay’s “(Last Night) I Didn’t Get to Sleep at All” was a lighter-than-air pop confection, with an irresistible melody arranged by Alcivar, Holman and Howe with just the right AM-friendly gloss. Randall McNeill’s “If I Could Reach You,” on the other hand, was a big, dramatic ballad in which McCoo wrung every drop of possible emotion with vulnerability and honesty. Released on 45, “Last Night” and “If I Could Reach You” proved the final Top 10 Pop entries for The 5th Dimension.
But those hits were hardly all Individually and Collectively had to offer. Billy Davis Jr. is perhaps the album’s standout, with leads on five of the eleven tracks. He tempered his deep-soul grit for the catchy, uplifting pop of “Leave a Little Room,” cut loose on the gospel-infused rendition of Elton John’s “Border Song,” and convincingly implored “Turn Around to Me” on a standout by Gerry Goffin and Michael Masser. Ron Townson revisited the soul staple “Band of Gold” (not the Freda Payne hit but the R&B chestnut popularized by Don Cherry and later, Mel Carter) with his resonant tones. Collectively, “Sky and Sea” was a stylistic successor to “Dimension 5ive,” and a welcome return to the Laura Nyro songbook yielded the sultry, impressionistic “Blackpatch” as a showcase for all five members. The group also delivered on a fine version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s warmhearted “All Kinds of People.”
Harry Nilsson would make another appearance on a 5th Dimension record as songwriter of the opening track on the fourth album in this set, 1973’s Living Together, Growing Together. His laconic “Open Your Window” began what turned out to be the group’s final Bell album and final complete collaboration with producer Bones Howe. Though Laura Nyro and Jimmy Webb were absent, there were two more tracks by Bacharach and David: the joyful sing-along title song (from the duo’s score to the film musical Lost Horizon) and the sleek and sophisticated “Let Me Be Lonely,” introduced by Dionne Warwick and led here by Florence LaRue, who nearly matches the intensity of Warwick’s original. Top pop purveyors Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter supplied the minor hit “Ashes to Ashes,” a true group showcase with a poignant, downcast lyric. Stephen Schwartz’s recent musical smash “Day by Day” was a more upbeat yet equally perfect choice, with Schwartz’s own piano-driven style owing much to the likes of Nyro. McCoo, who beautifully led “Open Your Window,” flexed her rich dramatic muscles for Paul Anka’s “Everything’s Been Changed,” with Davis taking his impassioned leads on Jeffrey Comanor’s brassy “There’s Nothin’ Like Music” and Randy McNeill’s wistful “There Never Was a Day.” Ron Townson took the spotlight for Bobby Arvon’s “What Do I Need to Be Me.”
The 5th Dimension followed Living Together, Growing Together with Bell swansong Soul and Inspiration. One album for ABC Records was up next – the Jimmy Webb-penned and produced Earthbound, a sequel of sorts to his first concept album for the group, The Magic Garden. (Earthbound was reissued last year by Real Gone Music for the first time on CD with liner notes by yours truly.) Alas, the reunion was short-lived, and Earthbound was the final album by the original 5th Dimension. With this release, however, Raven concludes a survey of the group’s eight classic LPs. (A Raven two-fer of 1971’s Live and 1974’s Soul and Inspiration would fully complete the Soul City/Bell story.)
This 4 Classic Albums set has a full-color 12-page booklet with generally informative notes by Ian McFarlane, though his assertion that Marilyn and Billy recorded three albums “before splitting up in 1980 (they’d been married since 1969)” is untrue; McCoo and Davis are still happily married, and performing and recording together, today. Warren Barnett has remastered all four titles for this collection, and it’s a very welcome way to acquire these sparkling albums which otherwise fetch high sums in previous, out-of-print releases.