Graded on a Curve:
Wendy & Bonnie,
Genesis

Genesis, the sole album from the teen femme duo Wendy & Bonnie was released in 1969 to no fanfare, but over the decades it has quietly grown into a solid cult item. 2008 found Sundazed issuing a 2CD/3LP set with a massive helping of extra tracks, but that still in-print edition is a reward for the record’s most ardent converts. In a nice turn of events, on the 21st of this month the label is offering a fresh 180gm vinyl pressing of the original release’s fitfully strong but likeably minor charms, and it’s a gesture far more fitting to the needs of a moderately admiring listenership.

Calling Genesis a period piece will automatically impact some readers as a putdown, in part due to many folks’ yardstick of measurement for the art of the past relating directly to whether or not it’s relevant to right now. On the other end of the spectrum, at least a few of Wendy & Bonnie’s most passionate fans surely prize the duo’s only LP precisely because it is indeed so evocative of the time and circumstances of its making.

Though I’m generalizing, those who love Genesis purely for its Flower Power era ambience are likely to value Roger Corman’s ’67 film The Trip over the great cinematographer Haskell Wexler’s first directorial effort, ‘69’s Medium Cool. The former is a spirited teen-exploitation flick that uses clichés and stereotypes as inspired playthings, but the latter is a one of kind motion picture with a seriousness of intent specifically concerning the upheavals of the tumultuous year of 1968.

And people who expressly use the term period piece as an insult could easily be prone to burdening The Trip and Medium Cool with that problematic bag, though with the possibility that Corman’s movie might be “appreciated” as camp and Wexler’s effort referenced as symbolic of the folly inherent in attempting a formally challenging, legitimately political cinema. And if the denigrators were asked to pair Genesis with one of these films on the basis of shared traits, I’m pretty sure the majority would choose The Trip.

That would be understandable, but only somewhat, for it would miss the sincerity of Wendy & Bonnie’s solitary effort, and the genuineness of the record is frankly one of its strongest qualities. As Genesis plays, not a hint of phony trend-milking opportunism rises to the surface, which is quite impressive since the duo’s story does land reasonably close to a Hollywood idea for a light-hearted youth-centered music-themed TV program of its era (albeit with a rather downcast ending).

Wendy and Bonnie Flower (their real last name, one a Tinseltown producer would’ve quickly struck down as too obvious) were the daughters of professional musicians living in the suburbs of the San Francisco Bay. Already engaged in playing and recording (Wendy sang lead and Bonnie played drums on a couple singles by area garage-psych group Crystal Fountain), the sisters’ acoustic home demos caught the ear of veteran Latin percussionist Cal Tjader, a family friend (and the siblings’ godfather) who was then a partner with vibraphonist Gary McFarland and guitarist Gábor Szabó in the fledgling Skye label.

Cal took the tapes to his cohorts, with the crew impressed enough that they gave 17-year-old Wendy and her 13-year-old sis a month to come up with a full album. Hard taskmasters but not exploiters, for the late McFarland served as an upright mentor for the duo. And unlike the tales behind many cult articles, Wendy & Bonnie’s bad luck came not through neglect or nefarious scheming but was instead linked to an ill-timed financial calamity; on the eve of a television appearance on The Merv Griffin Show, Skye went bankrupt.

In retrospect, that’s not a shock for a struggling imprint run by three mainstream jazzbos in the twilight of their genre’s commercial fortunes, and when listening to Genesis’ opener “Let Yourself Go Another Time” it’s impossible for these ears to not ruminate upon the rather sticky influence of their shared background on the tune.

A briskly paced number that stands out on the LP due to its busy full-band arrangement, the song unfortunately doesn’t really emphasize the duo’s strengths, being harmed by overly-deft Pro-styled session playing and bluntly, simply too much goddamned organ. The singing is attractively executed, and in one nice segment (after some wince-inducing grooved-out keyboard flogging) manages to rise above the trappings, but overall “Let Yourself Go Another Time” serves the record as a false start.

But the tune does establish the good-vibe pleasantries of their lyrical outlook, a sensibility that has been described elsewhere as naïve. Well sure, but it also comes from a pair of well-adjusted teenagers, so it’s not like Genesis rings as hollow or contrived in its innocence. And things really get going with the excellently titled “The Paisley Window Pane,” a slower composition that wisely focuses upon Wendy’s strong lead voice, with only Bonnie’s effective harmonies, acoustic guitar and quiet percussion serving as accompaniment.

This is what soft rock sounded like before it went to the dogs. If the production choices of the opening track were misjudged, “The Paisley Window Pane” succeeds by being breezy and light instead of syrupy (thankfully, nary a string section is to be found anywhere on Genesis) or plagued with overwrought mellowness. It’s pretty, yet doesn’t amplify this quality into fragility or preciousness, and in fact it is greatly enhanced by an aura of melancholy.

“I Realized You” continues the upswing with more equitable vocal harmonies, the singing initially punctuated by some well-employed jazz-inflected guitar. And in sharp contrast to “Let Yourself Go Another Time,” when the instrumentation picks up for Wendy’s solo turns, the drums and organ back her with aplomb, appropriately avoiding the fancy and letting her voice carry the tune.

Coming next is the disc’s finest cut, “By the Sea.” A spacious, gradually unwinding piece that finds Wendy’s confident vocalizing boosted by Bonnie’s guitar playing and the savvy instrumental flourishes of cymbal washes and chimes, it’s less aptly tagged as soft rock and much closer to a mingling of the jazz vocal tradition with ingredients familiar to progressive folk.

But with “You Keep Hanging Up on My Mind,” the album engages with a girl-group atmosphere, though the gust is closer to Bacharach then Spector. While agreeable, it’s also not amongst the LP’s stronger selections, though it does hold a cool guitar solo (courtesy of Larry Carlton) that improves even further once the sisters’ begin harmonizing along with it.

Side two begins with “It’s What’s Really Happening,” a faster paced topical song that kinda puts me in a Shocking Blue frame of mind, but with a different singer and a subtle Latin tinge (the rhythm also vaguely reminds me of Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman,” though falling short of its potency.) As a tune it’s sturdy enough, but it also emphasizes that much of Genesis’ appeal comes down to fleeting moments. In this case, it’s the wordless singing near the end, the vocals capturing an ambiance easily clarifying this LP’s influence on such later groups as Stereolab, Broadcast, and Supper Furry Animals.

However, “Five O’Clock in the Morning” achieves an intriguing consistency throughout, landing directly in an airy though also fairly dark psych-folk zone, though really ensuring its success is a noticeable lack of over-calculation. The song came about in a short timeframe of inspiration and was finalized with a minimum of studio pondering, with producer McFarlane reportedly pushing the sessions to a quick completion.

And Genesis is better for it. “Endless Pathway” might be a minor slice of lightly psych-kissed pop, but it also benefits from an avoidance of fussiness that allows the duo’s vocal abilities to shine. Plus, if Wendy & Bonnie had been given a longer period of album development, I suspect the largely wordless “Children Laughing” could’ve ended up cast aside. I’m glad that’s not the case.

If “Let Yourself Go Another Time” provides the disc with a rough beginning, “The Winter is Cold” closes it with assurance, and is notably the release’s most fully realized uptempo number. Reminiscent of mainstream coffeehouse folk after a few rounds of strong espresso, the cut shows them capable of a well-mannered bluesy turn, and it’s also the one track on the platter that cozies right up to a full-blown rock temperament, featuring a nicely done psych guitar solo.

In the end, Genesis is less than a classic, but as a piece from its period it survives very well given the circumstances of its making, and the only real bummer it produces is that Wendy & Bonnie never had the opportunity to record together again. It’s a stone cinch they would’ve gotten better with age. But youthful inexperience is undeniably a huge aspect in the overall appeal.

Anybody who still gives their discs by The Mamas & the Papas the occasional spin should look into this one. Picture your two kid sisters writing an LPs worth of songs in the span of time it takes you catch up with the first three seasons of Breaking Bad on DVD. Now imagine that the album your siblings made while you finished seasons four and five is actually pretty good. This quick-trigger non-jaded creativity is a big part of why Genesis still matters, but it’s really only the start of it.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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