Album of the Week, September 13: Dream A Little Dream by Mama Cass Elliot

Mama_Cass_Dream_a_little_dreamEllen Naomi Cohen was born in Baltimore and grew up in Alexandria, VA. She was bitten by the performing bug young, and left high school to pursue an acting career in New York. She began singing for fun, and pursued it as a serious career when she returned to the DC area for college. By that point she had assumed the name Cass Elliot as a tribute to Peggy Cass and to a friend who had died. She became the anchoring voice of the Big 3, which eventually transformed into the Mugwumps. Other members of that group helped found the Lovin’ Spoonful and the New Journeymen. When Denny Doherty convinced the latter’s leader, John Phillips, to add Elliot to the lineup, the quartet became the Mamas and the Papas. With her big voice and personality, Mama Cass became a focal point of the successful group, much to Phillips’ annoyance. When their label, Dunhill, chose to promote a single as “Mama Cass with the Mamas and Papas”, the growing fractures split the group. Taking that single as the launching point, Cass Elliot — stuck with the “Mama Cass” label at Dunhill’s insistence — began her solo career.

Title Dream A Little Dream
Act Mama Cass
Label Dunhill Release Date October 19, 1968
Producer John Simon
U.S. Chart  #87 U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Dream A Little Dream [#12]
  2. California Earthquake [#67]
  3. The Room Nobody Lives In
  4. Talkin’ to Your Toothbrush
  5. Blues For Breakfast
  6. You Know Who I Am
  7. Rubber Band
  8. Long Time Loving You
  9. Jane, the Insane Dog Lady
  10. What Was I Thinking Of?
  11. Burn Your Hatred
  12. Sweet Believer
  13. Darling Be Home Soon
  14. Sisotowbell Lane

Elliot ran into producer John Simon at a Frank Zappa concert. They struck up a friendship, and she decided that he was the best choice to helm her project. A rather eclectic production, it featured the singer trying on a variety of musical styles. Very much a product of her passion, it hangs together because of the vision that she and Simon crafted together. Originally called “In the Words of My Friends”, the disc features tracks written by many of the pair’s famous colleagues.  They built the song list quickly and clearly enjoyed the process of making one of the most fun, quirky solo debuts of an era filled with group members going it alone.

Things kick off with the single, Dream A Little Dream. A decades-old song originally intended as a dance number, it benefits greatly from Elliot’s meditative delivery. The song opens  and closes with radio noise and announcements, setting up the disc as a journey through the stations of Elliot’s imagination. The second track is one of the singer’s finest moments, the delightful California Earthquake. It’s a surprisingly rock number for the pop singer with jazzy roots and glows with joyful energy.

John Sebastian contributed The Room Nobody Lives In, a song that seems lifted from a musical that never was. It’s a sad, quiet song that shows off Elliot’s ability to tell a story. That vein continues with the unexpected Talkin’ to Your Toothbrush, a Simon composition. It’s a smart look at relationship politics framing deep emotions in the trivial to underscore their universal quality. Simon had produced albums for the Band, and Richard Manuel contributed Blues For Breakfast, a song with great pop energy and a dark, folky framework. Side one wraps up with rising folk star Leonard Cohen’s You Know Who I Am. Elliot clearly understands the poet’s epic vision, creating an almost Spectoresque vehicle for it.

Where the first side was held together by radio sounds, the second is connected by odd musical moments — like flute warmups — feeling like  a performance set. Rubber Band is a great starting point for that theme, a goofy, infectious number that Elliot clearly enjoys. On Long Time Loving You, she lets loose with the pop energy that made her famous, surging through the song with enthusiasm. Simon’s Jane the Insane Dog Lady is set up as a carnival performance by a sister act, a nice conceit that makes the Vaudevillian tune work. Elliot’s sister Leah contributed What Was I Thinking Of, a torchy song of regret that shows off Elliot’s vocal power. It’s a highlight of the disc, with a slow build and a smash finish.

Graham Nash contributed Burn Your Hatred, a nice track that works on multiple levels. Ostensibly a breakup song, it also fits in with the burgeoning peace movement, showing off a glimmer of political consciousness amidst all the musical adventure. Sweet Believer follows the same pattern, a song of frustrated encouragement for a friend who can’t quite commit to moving forward in life. It’s a strong track and a great wrap-up to the proceedings.

Elliot and Simon had two other tracks recorded for the album; both are included on later releases and add significantly to the musical journey. John Sebastian and the Lovin’ Spoonful had already hit the charts with Darling Be Home Soon, but Elliot makes it very much her own. It’s one of Sebastian’s most clever songs, with smart wordplay and sincere emotion fusing together into a wonderful pop package. Elliot undersells her vocals just enough to convey that emotion without overwhelming it, demonstrating her great understanding of herself as a performer. Joni Mitchell’s elliptical vignette Sisotowbell Lane receives a similar treatment, while showing off a higher part of Elliot’s range. This originally neglected pair bring serve as a lovely coda to the album.

Cass Elliot’s sense of musical adventure is infectious. On this solo debut her talent shines in a dazzling variety of hues. Too eccentric for the public, it stalled out the enthusiasm for her solo career. She continued to pursue her distinctive vision in sold out Vegas shows and new albums, but label confusion and narrow market tastes stymied the breakthrough her talent deserved. She died — of a heart attack, not a sandwich incident — in 1974, only 32 years old. Her whole catalog is fascinating and filled with great songs, but nothing matches the joyous energy of Dream A Little Dream.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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