By Richie Unterberger

When the Association released their second album in November 1966, Renaissance, they had just become one of the hottest groups in America. "Along Comes Mary" had given them their first Top Ten hit in the summer of 1966, followed just a couple of months later by their #1 smash "Cherish." Both songs were on their debut album And Then...Along Comes the Association, which itself was a big success, peaking at #5 on the LP charts.

    It would be a bit of a surprise, then, that Renaissance was done without the producer who'd been at the helm for "Along Comes Mary" and "Cherish." It contained no big hits, and furthermore, the track selected as the lead single was perhaps the strangest song on the record. Primarily for those reasons, Renaissance was a commercial disappointment, reaching #34. Like all of the Association's albums, however, it boasted far more diversity, albeit enclosed in a commercial pop framework, than many listeners would have suspected had they only been familiar with the group's AM hits. The diversity was an almost inevitable by-product of a band in which the lead vocal and songwriting chores were spread out almost evenly between all half a dozen members (though bassist Brian Cole did not snag any lead vocal or songwriting credits on this particular long-player).

    "We consciously pursued that," says Jim Yester, who would stay with the group longer (through 1976) than any of the band's original members. "That was coming right from the start. When we auditioned for just about every record company in town before we got a record deal, one of the companies was Capitol, and they didn't sign us as artists. But they wouldn't let us out of the building until we gave their publisher an appointment to come back and talk to them. They wound up signing us as writers, because they were so blown away by a group with six guys who all wrote, and were writing good stuff.

    "Everybody sang lead, everybody sang background, and everybody wrote. We tried to be as fair as possible. Some albums, some guys wrote a lot more than others. Jules [Alexander, still going by the name of Gary Alexander at the time of Renaissance] was very prolific; Terry [Kirkman] was also very prolific. But everybody was writing decent stuff, so we tried to include everybody's trip in every album. Also, we spread it around as far as who got B-sides. Of course," he concedes, "material selection for us was a brutal process. It didn't always go that way. And the further along, the more brutal it became. We used to call material selections hangings!"

    And Then...Along Comes the Association had been produced by Curt Boettcher, but for Renaissance, the group would switch to Jim's brother Jerry Yester. Jerry shared the Association's folk and folk-rock roots, having played folk with Jim back in the early '60s before joining the Modern Folk Quartet, who made the journey from folk-pop to folk-rock after a couple of albums on Warner Brothers. Yester would later replace Zal Yanovsky in the Lovin' Spoonful, as well as produce Tim Buckley's second and third albums, and make a remarkable psychedelic album (1969's Farewell Aldebaran) with his then-wife Judy Henske.

    "When the relationship first started, we went in and recorded five things with Curt for the first album," explains Jim Yester of the decision to switch producers. "The relationship was pretty good at that time. But the further we got into the album, the more it became Curt trying to put Curt's thing on the group, rather than trying to put the group's thing together on the record.

"We had kind of a falling out, and my brother really wishes we hadn't picked him," he laughs. "'Cause he was, in his words, a green kid. But I think it was a wonderful collaboration. Over the years, people keep telling me that Renaissance is one of their favorites. That and the album we did with John Boylan [1969's The Association] were more representative of what the group actually was than most of the other albums." One reason it was more representative was that the group, rather than session players, "did everything, as I recall," though that would change on the next few Association albums.

    Although the group's folk-rock-rooted brand of harmony pop was well in evidence in songs like "Memories of You," "All Is Mine," and "Angeline," other tracks saw them branch out in different directions. There was the almost bubblegumish pop of "Songs in the Wind," the smooth jazz-influenced group vocal interaction of "You May Think," and Yester's "No Fair At All," inspired by the 1940s-era song "Return to Paradise." "No Fair At All" would be a mild hit single (making #51), and its B-side, "Looking Glass" (whose romantic pop approach echoed "Cherish"), would bubble briefly under the Hot Hundred. Yet the album's sole Top Forty single (albeit peaking at just #35) was the strangest item, Jules Alexander's eerie "Pandora's Golden Heebie Jeebies," which was about as psychedelic as the Association ever got.

    "Why that was picked as a single, I'm not really sure, other than the fact that it was probably different from everything else that was going on, which was the case with 'Along Comes Mary'," speculates Yester. "I think that's why it ['Mary'] was successful. It was kind of 180 degrees out of phase from what was going on at the time. But 'Pandora's' was so unusual.

    "I really wish we had released the demo," he continues. "The demo was really good. That was just Jules, myself, and my ex-wife. The demo was so spooky, that's what pumped everybody on the song. It was a lot more acoustic, whereas by the time we recorded it, it became a lot more produced. The demo was a lot freer. But anyway, 'Pandora's' still was very unique, totally different."

    In the wake of Renaissance's relatively disappointing sales, the Association would change producers again and land a couple of their biggest, most commercial singles. Both would appear on their next LP, 1967's Top Ten entry Insight Out, also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice. -- Richie Unterberger 

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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