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Published: 2006/12/23
by Pat Buzby

John Phillips (John the Wolfking of L.A.) – John Phillips

Var Sarabande 302 066 752 2

Time and oldies radio haven’t been especially kind to the Mamas and the Papas. To my MTV generation ears, their '60s hits land somewhere between Peter, Paul and Mary and Sonny and Cher. However, their mastermind John Phillips was a less innocent soul than you might guess from the slick L.A. folk-pop which made him famous. Early in his career he penned the future Bob Weir murderous cowboy staple “Me and My Uncle." Later, he got far enough out on the wild side that the Rolling Stones signed him to their label.

In between came this 1970 solo album, a long-out-of-print cult curiosity now seeing the light again on CD. If you can accept Phillips as a minor Brian Wilson, then this record was his answer to Friends, 20/20 and the other records the Beach Boys made when they found themselves in the wilderness. Like Wilson and company, Phillips sounds like a onetime pop star with a lot of money in the bank and a thorough awareness of his lack of connection with the world.

On the surface, this is calm music. The chord sequences are placid, Phillips’s vocals rarely rise above a murmur and Larry Knechtel, Joe Osborn and Hal Blaine supply the same light drive that they provided on almost every pop album recorded between 1963 and 1972. Behind the celebrations of Topanga and Malibu and the stories of road trips and affairs lies much discontent, though. Phillips sings that he’s “in deep water” in one of his most rousing choruses, and within seconds of the start of the record Phillip’s first female protagonist finds that “the sash around her waist had turned to lead.” The rhyming line hints at a callous undercurrent: “And her jingle-jangle faggot friend was dead.” (The liner notes tactfully omit “faggot” while identifying the real-life inspirations for Phillips’s lyric.)

Var Sarabande has presented this disc with care and added eight bonus cuts, including some (such as the acoustic lament “Lady Genevieve”) which make stronger impressions than much of the original album. John Phillips passed most people by in 1970, and listeners without an appetite for West Coast slices of life may not notice it today. However, those who happen upon it might never hear “Monday, Monday” or “California Dreamin’” the same way again.

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