Chicago’s garage-rockers The Cryan’ Shames was a band with big ambitions, a knack for turning out faithful covers of the hits of the day that could sound like original versions, and killer harmonies. Starting life as The Travelers, the band developed a reputation for being a killer British Invasion-inspired cover band. A record deal led to a name change, but it didn’t slow down the band’s progression.
Their debut album, Sugar & Spice, was released in 1966 and is very much in line with the era; a small handful of originals and a heaping helping of covers of bigger hits and slightly lesser-known material. Their intended first single was to be a cover of The Beatles’ “If I Needed Someone.” The song had yet to be released in America, but George Harrison put the kibosh on their plans. Their plan-B release, “Sugar And Spice,” quickly became a hit. Though the album may have lacked in terms of originality, it’s not without its charm; their cover of “You’re Going To Lose That Girl” might be atypical of the era; their cover of “We’ll Meet Again” was a bit left-field. Furthermore, the originals on the album, “July” and “I Wanna Meet You,” showed that lead songwriter Jim Fairs was a talented young man worth paying attention to.
Sugar & Spice, however, is quickly overshadowed by the band’s follow-up, A Scratch in the Sky. A quick maturation in sound is tempered with a lineup change and the perfectionist vision of leader Jim Fairs results in a record that mostly ditches the British Invasion-ness of the debut in favor of a soft, gentle baroque pop that is rich with harmonies, lush arrangements, and killer melodies. The opening “A Carol for Lorelei” instantly lets you know that this record is going to be radically different than its predecessor.
If anything, one listens to A Scratch In The Sky and wonders if they traded all of their Beatles records for every record by The Cowsills and The Association. It’s an album of gentle, unhurried pleasure, with a focus on harmonies and arrangements; there’s something quite innocent about “It Could Be We’re In Love,” which was the lead single, while “I Was Lonely When” is a light, jazzy number, and their cover of Goffin/King classic “Up On The Roof” isn’t to be missed, either. Sure, they could still do upbeat, more rock-minded fare; “Mr. Unreliable” and “Sunshine Psalm” capture the soft-rock zeitgeist, while “The Sailing Ship” is a song that’s much heavier than you might think them capable of.
Though their music was innovative and quite beautiful, The Cryan’ Shames managed to release only one more album, before going their separate ways.It’s a shame, really; even though a version of the band still tours and performs, they’ve never matched the heights offered here. Still, A Scratch In The Sky is one helluva record, a timeless trip into beautiful sound.