Album Reviews

Anita Kerr: The Five Classic Warner Brothers Albums 1966-1968 (el Records)

anita-kerr

Anita Kerr
The Five Classic Warner Brothers Albums 1966-1968
el Records/Cherry Red

In the mid-1960s, Anita Kerr’s life was in a bit of upheaval. She’d made her name in the music industry as being one of the go-to session vocalists, leading The Anita Kerr Singers, a harmony group that had appeared on many of Nashville’s greatest hits. But with her marriage falling apart, she sought something new, and in 1965, newly remarried, she disbanded her Nashville singers, relocated to Los Angeles, putting together a new group with a focus less on country and on more contemporary sounds. It wasn’t surprising; with the success of bands such as Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass and The Association—groups that blended pop with easy listening, jazz, and vocal harmony—such a move seemed understandable. Arriving in California, she signed to Warner Brothers, and released a handful of albums—all of which are compiled in this handy box set.

By this time in her career, her sound was well-defined, and even though she relocated to experiment and record more contemporary music, the work she did wasn’t radically different from what she’d done in Nashville. Her first album, And Now…The Anita Kerr Orchestra!, was released in 1966, and was largely instrumental, with swashes of harmonies performing the choruses on well known songs such as “Spanish Harlem,” “This Land Is Your Land,” and “Over The Rainbow.” For those longing her singing, she also released Slightly Baroque, a vocal album with performances of contemporary pop and jazz vocal numbers. Their take on such hits as “Mona Lisa” and “Answer Me, My Love,” are lush symphonic numbers highlighted by Kerr’s polyphonic harmonies. The songs are warm, and the slowed-down version of Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual” feels like a blueprint for both The Fifth Dimension and Stereolab.

1967 was a year of great musical change and innovation, and she would delve into this era with Rod McKuen with a trilogy of conceptual spoken-word albums. (Those albums were collected in a box set last year.) She would release two albums that year, both pop records, yet quite different in sound. The first, Bert Kaempfert Turns Us On!, was a tribute to the German easy-listening pop songwriter, who had massive European success as a bandleader, while becoming known in America for his pop hits “Strangers In The Night” and “Danke Schoen.” All You Need Is Love, her second album of the year, explores the contemporary music world, with superb results. Takes on The Mamas & The Papas’ “No Salt On Her Tail,” The Association’s “Never My Love,” and Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love” are natural fits for the group. The Bee Gees’ “Holiday” and Frankie Valli’s “I Make A Fool Of Myself” are the jewels of the album. The only number that doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the record is the title track. The Beatles’ composition was an earnest, sincere one; the light, easy-breezy take here sounds awkward and oddly insincere.

This experimenting with contemporary sounds proved rewarding, which is why her final album for Warner Brothers, 1968’s Sounds, is a bit of a letdown. It’s not a bad record—Kerr and company couldn’t make a bad record if they tried—but it returns to the tried-and-true formula from her Nashville era, backing away somewhat from the daring of All You Need Is Love. The two most well-known songs covered, “The Beat Goes On” and “Swinging On A Star” are wonderfully arranged, yet oddly lack soul, feeling awkwardly emotionless in spite of the cheery arrangements. Ballad “Long Live Our Love” and “I Would Love You” are the standouts here; with their orchestral arrangements, they feel like precursors to The Carpenters and the bombastic pop of the 1970s.

Kerr would keep making music, though. She’d move to various locations all over the world and form new iterations of her Orchestra and Singers, and would return to the country world where she made her name. The albums featured here highlight her brief exploration into modern pop, and show that much like her country work, she was a master of the game, and these five records are delightful examples of the era’s easy listening/sunshine pop crossover.

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