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Margo Guryan 

Take a Picture (Oglio)

Wednesday, Mar 21 2001
You could be forgiven for suspecting, even just momentarily, that this record is an elaborate put-on. After all, phony "lost masterpieces" are becoming commonplace in indie music circles, and as '60s cult figures go, Margo Guryan looks too good to be true. A classically trained jazz pianist who studied with Bill Evans, Ornette Coleman, and Milt Jackson, Guryan got the pop bug after hearing the Beach Boys' 1966 classic "God Only Knows." She switched from writing torch songs for the likes of jazz crooner Chris Connor to crafting odd, emotionally askew pop numbers. These later tunes -- notably "Sunday Morning" and "Think of Rain" -- were covered by a wide variety of soft-pop singers, including Astrud Gilberto, Jackie DeShannon, Cass Elliott, and Glenn Campbell, and gave her several modest Top 40 hits. But in the early years of the Me Decade, Guryan drifted away from the pop industry, eventually becoming a children's music tutor.

Take a Picture is Guryan's missing masterpiece, a beguiling, barely noticed album from 1968 that's full of addictive orchestral arrangements, nutty electric guitar work, and wispy vocals. Musically, it's a perfect '60s time capsule, straddling the string-laden symphonic arrangements of squaresville major-label singers and the more psychedelic explorations of baroque pop groups such as the Left Banke and the Zombies -- a sound present-day indie archaeologists (Tindersticks, Gentle Waves) would give their eyeteeth to capture.

Like most great musical mysterios, Guryan elicits comparison with her contemporaries. As a composer, she was neither as solid nor as rigid as Brill Building tunesmiths-for-hire Carole King and Ellie Greenwich, yet she expanded greatly on their uniquely female perspectives. As a performer, Guryan used a thin voice reminiscent of Marianne Faithfull's early work, back when Faithfull was still a prefab starlet struggling to become a tortured artist. Guryan, however, seemed tormented to begin with -- her lyrics were steeped in suppressed, strangled emotion, flashing a bitter self-knowledge while struggling to affect a casual, Summer of Love worldliness. "Hey," she seemed to say, "it didn't work out, man, but that's the way it goes. You go on ahead and I'll sit here and seethe." If poet Sylvia Plath had started a garage band instead of writing The Bell Jar, the results might have been similar. The contrast between the ditzy sex kitten in "What Can I Give You" and the forlorn, post-breakup cynic of "It's Alright Now" is compelling. Only Brian Wilson's lyrics came close to matching Guryan's guardedly confessional verses in terms of their unique introversion and slippery internal landscapes. This album may be too good to be true, but it's also everything we could wish for.

About The Author

Lawrence Kay


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