Wednesday, July 5, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1024: The Shangri-Las

After a long day and a hot walk home, I’m a bit knackered, but the Odyssey must sail on!

Disc 1024 is…The Best of the Shangri-Las
Artist: The Shangri-Las

Year of Release: 1996 but featuring music from 1964-1967

What’s up with the Cover? The Shangri-Las themselves: lead singer Mary Weiss flanked by identical twin sisters Marg and Mary-Ann Ganser.

These outfits look a little like something out of Star Trek – I guess this is what passed for high fashion in the mid-sixties, whether you were a trio of pop starlets or boldly going where no man has gone before. In the case of the Shangri-Las, both were true.

How I Came To Know It: I saw the Shangri-Las mentioned by Aimee Winehouse on a documentary about her as being an important early influence in her music. When they played a clip, I liked what I heard. I was originally on the hunt for their only two studio albums, but this compilation had most of what was on them, and the singles as well, so it just made sense.

How It Stacks Up:  Compilation albums don’t stack up. Them’s the rules.

Ratings: No rating for “best ofs” either – they are not true albums. They can still be fun, though!

In an age of sweet and saccharine girl groups, the Shangri-Las gave pop an edge it desperately needed. More than fifty years later, their music has taken on a nostalgic quality, but is still sharp enough to cut you. The Shangri-Las were sometimes a trio and sometimes a quartet, but they always had plenty of attitude to spare.

Everyone knows this band for “Leader of the Pack”. However, even though history has remembered them mostly for a single song, they were a lot more than that. The melodies on these songs are incredible, lilting doo-wap style crooning, mixed in with the rough edge of rock and roll and even a little jazz.

Every song on this album had me swaying my head or swinging my hips, and they made my journey home from work more pleasant every day. They have a groove and a soaring quality that makes you feel like spinning a 360 at every red light. Of course, I didn’t, but I probably had a stupid grin on my face the whole way home.

And for all that happy, schmaltzy, pop these songs are edgy. Let’s not forget that even their most famous hit ends with the titular pack leader wiping out on his motorcycle and dying. And while the girls sing their regrets that they’ll miss him, you also get the distinct impression they’re going to be able to move on just fine. Case in point: “Out in the Streets” featuring another bad boy, who has agreed to set aside his wild life to be worthy of our fearless gals’ affection. But as they note on the song:

“He don't hang around
with the gang no more
He don't do the wild things
that he did before
He used to act bad
Used to, but he quit it
It make me so sad
Cause I know that he did it
for me.”

Bad move, fella. If you don’t stop shaping up and flying right, I get the impression the Shangri-Las will be moving on in search of someone wilder.

On other tracks, a mom dies of grief after her daughter runs away (“I Can Never Go Home Anymore”), and a young couple dies in a wreck after their love is denied (“Give Us Your Blessings”). Love is hard for these gals. Even when no one dies, things are rough; on “He Cried” the boyfriend isn’t just dumped, afterward he’s outed for crying about it. Back to the library with you, Poindexter; these gals need a guy made of tougher stuff than that.

The Ganser sisters establish a fine high harmony, and gliding over and under it is lead singer Mary Weiss. Weiss makes it all believable with a delivery that is part pop starlet, part biker chick and part beatnik poet. A lot of these songs are just her doing a sort of proto-rap poetry, sounding sexy and over the top, but mostly sexy.

On “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” she makes lines like “when I say I’m in love, you best believe I’m in love – l-u-v!” delightfully lascivious and when asked how her new man dances, Weiss breathily confesses “close…very very close” in a way that makes you think she’s taken her gum out and leaned in to tell you, so there’ll be no mistaking what she’s driving at.

One of my favourite songs is “Sophisticated Boom Boom,” which is about a girl finding the world’s hippest party. It is a relatively complicated pop song, particularly for its time, with a jazz bass line, lots of strange instrumentation and swing-like kick to it. Weiss owns it from beginning to end, making her vocal cadence just one more instrument working its way into the mix with the grace and attitude of a Nancy Sinatra.

Most of the tracks are written by a guy named Shadow Morton, who deserves a lot of the credit for coming up with such great sixties pop, flavoured with a counter culture vibe and a dash of danger. However, it is the Shangri-Las’ swagger that bring them to life.

Even though there are 25 songs on this record, they are all so short it’s all over in just over an hour, leaving you wanting more.

Sadly, there isn’t much more, as the Shangri-Las had a handful of singles, two studio albums and that’s about it. But despite the relatively meager output, they’ve had a huge impact on performers that followed them. With their combination of talent, moxy and some great songwriting, it is easy to see why.

Best tracks: Leader of the Pack, Give Him a Great Big Kiss, Out in the Streets, Give Us Your Blessings, The Dum Dum Ditty, The Train from Kansas City, I Can Never Go Home Anymore, Sophisticated Boom Boom, He Cried, Past Present and Future, 

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