Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Best It Ever Could Be For Popsike Future Heavies The World Of Oz And Their Lighthearted Deeply Moving 1968 Masterpiece

A few months ago, or rather more around a month ago I wrote up about a band called Rats who included David "Kubie" Kubinec in their ranks- a relatively heavy rocking band with also some brilliant introspective moments. Kubinec was the lead vocalist long before Rats in The World Of Oz- a very different sort of a band, but every bit as worthy. Kubie, if he is still with us and I certainly hope he is, may never have taken off into a hugely successful career despite a very unique and special voice to go with unique and special songs, but he should be proud of the two great bands he took part in.

                                      -The World Of Oz At A Glance-
    On listening to World Of Oz I am amazed at how advanced this sounds for a 1968 recording even on an American pressing. It simply is so perfect that it never would need remastering or a touch up of any kind to make it sound more vivid, more colourful, more full of the splendor of those days when anything and everything was possible. With each listening I begin to think this album may knock all the other competition to the ground. It's definitely on the light side for much of the album, but aside from their minor hit "The Muffin Man" it cuts pretty deep both musically and lyrically when you pay enough attention to the detail that goes into each song both musically and in regards to the great vocal sound. In my blog last night I described Rockin' Horse's brilliant YES IT IS as heavier popsike and also stripped down quite a bit on the production side. That was British pop/rock of the Neo Beatles school in the early 1970s when less and less bands wanted to be studio outfits. I would imagine that World Of Oz were a real and durable band who probably sounded a lot heavier than this live, but their self titled 1968 album is definitely an all out studio milked to beyond dry epic pop psych sound. Jonathan King unfortunately wrote the liner notes, but there is a strange similarity between World Of Oz and the debut album of the future superstar band that Jonathan King "discovered" that being Genesis. Thankfully, World Of Oz are every bit as good as Genesis in the songwriting department, but they also sound more comfortable with the strings, horns, and psychedelic effects that are present in nearly every track. At first this record may only strike some of you as "pleasant" but its a lot deeper than that you can be sure. Introspective ballads sit comfortably next to harder more overtly psychedelic numbers where fuzz guitars, phasing, and trippy vocals create both a rollicking and quaint olde English atmosphere. Now let's get to the main part of this rave I'm writing on this masterpiece- the songs.
                   -The World Of Oz From First Track "The Muffin Man" To Last "Willow's Harp"-
The World Of Oz formed in Birmingham sometime around 1967 I would think and they were lucky enough to have an almost instant minor hit in the whimsical toytown bubblegum popsike number "The Muffin Man." Released on Deram the song did well enough for the band to gain not just the opportunity to make an album of all original material, but to have their album issued in both England and America simultaneously. They went into the studio confident that the album was going to top the single for sales, that they would make it as big as the bands who influenced them The Bee Gees, The Moody Blues, and The Move, but typically their masterpiece was a commercial flop and only gained attention long after the disillusioned band had split up. Mike Hopkins future Jeff Lynne replacement in The Idle Race and later lead guitarist for hard rock band Quartz played some role in The World Of Oz, but the only band member I am sure was integral to the album and sang all the lead vocals on it is David "Kubie" Kubinec. This lack of information is largely because despite an auspicious start very little about the band is known as they broke up soon after the failure to make it big with an album. Looking at the album today it lacks the problem that many other similarly whimsical lighthearted albums and groups had which was mainly in America overproduction or misuse of a great opportunity to have a full orchestral backing done the right way. On roughly over half the album sped up strings, lavish orchestral backdrops, Beatles alike horn arrangements, and beautiful harmonies are the order of the day. Some tracks which I will get to soon in full detail are the band playing driving rhythms behind crisply recorded bass and drums with strong vocal harmonies on top whilst other tracks are very psychedelic affairs combining heavy fuzz toned guitars with lavish production from Wayne Bickerton.
       "The Muffin Man" the hit of course kicks off the album. That was flavour of the month order of the day back then. Usually, and this is no exception, the hit wasn't the best song. I like "The Muffin Man" it has a funny cheerful kind of charming naivete about it that is very 1967/1968. Just a year or so down the road no one would be writing such a ridiculous lyric and this song is overflowing with them! Yeah, it's almost on a Spinal Tap level of self-parody, but I think this may have been intentionally tongue in cheek. "Bring The Ring" is another matter. With Moody Blues progressive pop leanings, intelligently whimsical lyrics, and a haunting vibe "Bring The Ring" is right up there with the best songs ever written not just by 60s giants like Kaleidoscope (some very strong similarities) or Grapefruit it is a song that will live forever. If you hear this song and you have an open unclouded approach to your musical taste you will know as I know that this is an indication of just how imaginative and emotional music could be in 1968. I'm generally, and I'm warning you now about this, a sucker for any kind of Medieval or mystical "Quest For Perfection" lyrical themes, but "Bring The Ring" is more than just that. It is so beautiful, just a really lovely uplifting yet very mysterious sounding song.
    "Jackie" is a love song of the kind that worships and adores the object of affection with the utmost sincerity and again Kubinec shines with a beautiful vocal that combines the late Robin Gibb but much more interesting with Kaleidoscope's fantastic singer Peter Daltrey. Peter is a gentleman. He has gone off the rails in the liner notes to a recent Kaleidoscope singles anthology where he bitches and moans almost as obnoxiously as Pete Townsend or Roger Waters does, but I met the man through my brilliant dad 3 years ago the last time I was in England and I know who the real Peter Daltrey is. He is a kind, warm, funny, outgoing and good solid English Gentleman. I sure would love to meet David Kubinec. He would later go onto much harder rock material in Rats and even flirt with the punk movement, but that something as sincere and heartfelt as his vocals on The World Of Oz album could come from a later master of harder edged singing shows that he is really a very underrated overlooked vocalist and writer. "Jackie" ups things beyond The Bee Gees. Somehow I get a vibe from it like The Bee Gees meets something more concrete, but damned if I can name the band I think of every time I hear it. It could be Angel Pavement or Electric Light Orchestra, but when listening to "Jackie" I'm so engaged in the sound of every vocal line, harmony, and instrument that I go right deep into the heart of the song and bask in its brilliance.
  "Beside The Fire" follows "Jackie" and is about something I've felt a lot of lately- the pain of lost love. Rich organ backing, soaring strings, emotional beyond emotional vocals, and really depressed love lorn words create a very sad very moving atmosphere for a song about the tragedy of loving someone who no longer loves you at all. You are left with your memory of how happy it once was and it seems that your despair will be never ending. Go hug an off duty Guardsman and he might make you feel happier by hugging you back. I've tried it and amazingly it's worked in England! More than a few times in England I have found people to be more sympathetic, but people here have also helped me out of difficult times where I've felt completely alone. Do not play this song if you are in a depressed mood- it's a great song but it certainly will not make you feel any better!
  "The Hum-Gum Tree" comes next. Maybe you expect another bubblegum Music Hall inspired number like "The Muffin Man" and damn even that word "Gum" like bubblegum is in the title. No. This is The World Of Oz cleverly disguising a song about sex and lust with childhood reflections and quaint yet subtly very naughty lyrics! Huge strings and horns don't figure here. They are replaced by a single phased cello and hard rocking full band instrumentation of vocals, guitars, bass, and drums. This is the heavier side of The World Of Oz for the first time. Very much "The Wood" and "The Hum Gum Tree" could be cute ways of singing about the more sexually liberating times people lived in in the 1960s. The harmonies sound like a bunch of rowdy schoolboys and Kubinec's lead voice is very funny and uplifting- a little bit like Roy Wood. There aren't many tracks on this album where the more extensive use of the studio including lots of strings, horns, and vocal harmonies are the signature sound, but there are enough of them to keep this from sounding like one big studio orgy. Something a little different is tried for every song, but you have to give the songs full attention to notice how much more than just a great pop psych/Baroque pop record this is- it may be THE BEST EVER!
   "With A Little Help" follows "The Hum-Gum Tree" in the starker way that "Bring The Ring" follows "The Muffin Man" yet the pairing of these two is very different for the closing of side one than the beginning of side one. "The Hum-Gum Tree" is a song about sexuality and "With A Little Help" is an uplifting song stating that anything and everything is possible if we help each other out a little more. There is some nice use of fuzz guitars and a stately majestic arrangement as a backdrop for more of the exquisite vocals that are The World Of Oz's trademark. You could mention The Move or The Idle Race, but you'd have to say a little bit more of a kind of Moody Blues wistfulness to World Of Oz.
       Side Two comprises some of the best pop psych ever recorded every bit as good as Side One. They begin to experiment a bit more. The songs develop a more obvious edge and the first track is a perfect example of this. "We've All Seen The Queen" is a rocker, an out and out one too with great harmonies thrown in and some prime Beatles influences. I'm thinking now every time it hits this track that The World Of Oz were criminally overlooked. If their music had been given a chance, if promotion had been stronger than it was for "The Muffin Man" instead of ignoring them they would have reached a much wider audience. Unfortunately, their album was lambasted and savaged by critics for years although I should point out they were and are always the kind of stupid critics who hate anything remotely pop especially if it's British even though they may be British. "We've All Seen The Queen" clearly proves them wrong. It rocks. It has power. It has a forceful driving sound to it and the lyrics are very, very clever.
   "King Croesus" again is a very intelligent song and unlike anything else on the record it goes for a Procol Harum meets Beatles sound with lovely harmonies atop magical weaving classical organ. The World Of Oz were not just your average flower power cash in group. No, they were something truly unique and amazing and anyone who doubts this must surely be somebody who does not understand music correctly. Furthermore, this is more than just a musical history lesson. Recently bands such as Elbow, Grizzly Bear, Arcade Fire, and a few others have been playing melodically inventive music again with great vocals that thank God have been bringing some emotion back into rock. I personally think that if we give it time music is not only going to get even better again,  but it already is. Songs are coming back, but I'm leading up to something that only could have been done in the wonderful time of the 60s "Mandy Ann." I love this song so very much! Joyous harmonies, high spirited whimsical lyrics, brilliant melodies, and great lead vocals from Kubinec make this pop psych at an absolute zenith! Toytown and Swinging London fans like me will not be able to get enough of this!    
     "Jack" manages to be even sillier than "The Muffin Man" however and there are too many references to swings and jellybeans. I like it, but it is by far the least interesting track on the album lyrically. However, if you pay close attention to the melodies and the arrangement musically it is a good try at the lightest side of British pop psych. Thankfully the inventiveness and intelligence of the rest of Side Two in particular and the album as a whole come back for two momentous final tracks "Like A Tear" and "Willow's Harp." Both tracks are the most musically adventurous on the album with "Like A Tear" a darker, more haunting beauty that also manages to retain the uplifting spirit of the best pop psych in the world. There's a lot of fuzz guitar weaving around on this track and making a lot of patterns all over your mind and here is where there is proof that you don't need any drugs at all to get higher. Drugs will do one thing and one thing only- destroy you. Music when it is bad and mean and nasty has the power to destroy, but when it is not sick, when it is good and brilliant and made for the right reasons it has the power to elevate you and to heal. Listening to The World Of Oz whilst I try to fight off nightmares and depression is an uplifting experience and all of the album's most adventuresome, highly inventive, joyous, exulting, haunting, and very deeply moving brilliance are there in full regalia on "Willow's Harp" the closing track. Buy this album as soon as you get a chance. This is something that every collection needs or it is incomplete without.

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