The first of three posts looking at Bergen White’s 1970 soft pop album For Women Only track-by-track.
1. She Is Today, (Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, 2.34) *****
An uncharacteristically uptempo track, She Is Today opens For Women Only with light strings and Bergen White’s attractive feathery vocal.
‘She Is Today’ combines drama with a sense of joyful liberation. The track is pure late 60s and you might say it is the most dated on the album inasmuch as it describes the up-to-the-minute young woman of the times – ‘she is flipped and tripped out but she still cares…. she is today.’ At this point I almost expect a voiceover to enter over the top of the track – ‘Today! The new perfume for today’s woman…’ – and I don’t mean that to belittle this lovely song in any way.
Busy strings, xylophone, bubbling bass, timpani and brass move things along at a fair old pace whilst Cynthia Weil’s characteristically imaginative lyrics describe the woman by portraying the times she embodies.
The song itself dates from several years earlier. Barry Mann released it as the B-side to his April 1967 single Where Do I Go From Here showing, before the dawn of the Summer of Love, just how in touch with the zeitgeist were Mann and Weil. Barry Mann’s version uses a significantly different arrangement which is every bit as adventurous as Bergen’s if not more so. I admire the way he brings out the tenderness of the title lyric. Bergen’s cover is altogether smoother in style and his vocals more suited to the gentleness of the song. Each version has brief instrumental melodic motifs which don’t feature in the other.
‘She Is Today’ strikes me as different from all the other uptempo tracks on For Women Only which tend to borrow from country or country-pop conventions for their appeal. ‘She is Today’ is pure melodic pop. It’s interesting to speculate how Nashville’s Area Code 615 musicians, accustomed to working on country material, responded to working on ‘She is Today’.
2. It’s Your Time (Bergen White, 2.10) ***
After the open track’s free-wheeling vitality, this comes as a slight disappointment which led me to think For Women Only isn’t going to be quite as great as I at first thought.
It’s Your Time has (to my ears) an over-loud four-string tenor guitar opening which then audibly reduces in volume as the vocal comes in, one of the album’s very few less than stellar arrangement/production moments. I find the melody slightly repetitive though this does help drive home the final verse’s emphatic ‘When you said your love was dead…’ lyrics. The arrangement throughout is comparatively underplayed.
It’s Your Time succeeds in establishing the predominantly melancholic feel of For Women Only but is overshadowed by tracks yet to come.
3. Let Me Stay Awhile (Mickey Newbury, 3.21) *****
This opens to a great introduction featuring marked stereo separation and a heavily treated vocal repeated at the lead-off. This backgrounded vocal somehow adds to the heavily reflective mood of the song, as if it’s a refrain happening inside the singer’s head.
Let Me Stay Awhile is an emotionally raw, melancholic piece typical of Mickey Newbury in the way it exposes the singer’s vulnerability and fatalism. The melody line curves away in different directions rather than following a straightforward repeat; as well as showing a craftsman’s attention to detail, touches like this heighten the song’s emotional tenor.
Mickey Newbury’s original features along with other rarities and unreleased material on Disc 4 of 2011’s American Trilogy box-set. Bergen’s version downplays the song’s country origins in favour of a smoother, more baroque treatment which works beautifully.
4. Look at Me (David Gates, 2.38) ****
Bergen says he isn’t happy with hearing this now, even going so far as to say he would have omitted Look at Me and the album’s other David Gates song, Gone Again and indeed I don’t think Bergen’s magic quite works on either song in the way that it emphatically does on Let Me Stay Awhile, Lisa Was and Second Lover’s Song.
Look at Me is one of my favourite David Gates songs. It’s also one of his most uncharacteristic as it is steeped in existential bleakness. A lonely individual longs to be seen and to be known but realises that the possibility eludes him: ‘Look at me, I’m blending into the wall and I wonder if I’m really here at all’.
In David Gate’s hands Look at Me expresses a gracefulness (in both vocals and guitar) which I feel Bergen’s slightly lacks even although he maintains elements of the original such as the short-lived but rather lovely clarinet solo and the stark vocal harmonies of ‘On the edge, I feel like I’m going to fall…’ He adds rather regimental, arpeggiated acoustic guitar in unison with another instrument, keyboard, I think. Occasional isolated drum pattern and castanet rattle are well placed.
Overall Bergen’s version is really fine but can’t quite match the subtlety of the Gates original. If you’re coming to this song for the first time, I would say go to the Bread version first. It’s on their underrated self-titled first album.
We’ll take up For Women Only again with Track 5, Lisa Was and continue through to Track 9, Second Lover’s Song – in two weeks’ time.
For Women Only: tracks 5-9
For Women Only: tracks 10-18
For Women Only: album overview