Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Late Night Listening: Mellow Yellow

Mellow Yellow is one of my three favorite Donovan albums (the other two being Open Roads and Barabajagal, each a favorite for a different reason), but oddly enough, I'm not that big a fan of the title song--it's gimmicky and poppy enough, but it lacks any real depth.  No, it's "Young Girl Blues" and "Hampstead Incident" and "Writer in the Sun" and "Sand and Foam" that make this album work for me--an amalgam of folk, blues, and jazz, with superlative production by Mickie Most and arrangement by John Cameron and John Paul Jones. Yes, that's the same John Paul Jones who was a member of Led Zeppelin--and he's not the only Zeppelin member on this album, as Jimmy Page also plays on "Mellow Yellow."

The presence of two future Led Zeppelin members is particularly intriguing because their presence in the studio means that they were most likely very much aware of the song "Hampstead Incident." Listen to that song and you'll recognize the acoustic guitar chord pattern as the same one that Jimmy Page  used on "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" on the first Led Zeppelin album. Page was notorious for "borrowing" riffs, phrases, lyrics, and even entire songs from other musicians, so it's not surprising that he would lift this moody progression for an arrangement of "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" that is totally unlike prior recorded versions of the song written by Anne Bredon and recorded by Joan Baez.  (And if you've never heard of Anne Bredon, don't be surprised--Led Zeppelin didn't originally credit her as the author of the song, although they've added her as "co-writer" of the song since 1990 and have paid her a very tidy sum in royalties.)

For years, people have mis-heard Donovan to be saying "quite right, slick" on the title song—and in fact, SiriusXM Radio once asked him to record that phrase for a promo for them. He asked them why, and they said it was the phrase he used on "Mellow Yellow." No, he said—the phrase in the song is "quite rightly."  I have to admit that, for years, I also heard it as "quite right, slick," and only heard it properly after Donovan pointed out the correct lyrics.

The Beatle fan in me considers this a must-have because Paul McCartney performs on "Mellow Yellow" (don't listen for him... you'll never recognize him). And a few years ago, I mentioned that I was a big fan of Nick Drake; turns out that Drake credited the Mellow Yellow album as having a major influence on his music, and I can definitely hear that in the slower, more introspective songs.

And as much as  I love stereo, mono is the way to go on this recording.  I also recommend vinyl over any CD version because every CD I've ever heard overloads the guitar on "Young Girl Blues," distorting the sound of the lovely finger-picking strumming pattern in several places.

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