Laurie SLP 2049, 1969
Reissued (CD with bonus tracks) as Sundazed SC 6172, 2001
If there's a spiritual heir to both Johann Sebastian Bach and Brian Wilson, surely it's Michael Brown, master of the rock and roll harpsichord and a perfectionist beyond all reasonable understanding, the combination of which brings him adulation and reverence from fans of baroque late-Sixties pop and blank looks from almost everyone else though the 1966 Left Banke single "Walk Away Renee", a staple of present-day oldies radio, will almost always draw understanding nods. But no, that wasn't the voice of Michael Brown: it's his piano, and his arrangement, and his fixation on the ever-unreachable Renee (who also motivated the follow-up "Pretty Ballerina"), but the Left Banke, with three excellent vocalists fronted by Steve Martin, was clearly more than merely Brown's band, a fact which led to friction, breakup and reunion, and breakup once more.
And so it was that in 1968, with the rest of the Left Banke going on without him, Michael Brown disappeared into New Jersey and eventually resurfaced with, but not actually in, Montage; he cowrote all but one song his writing partners were Bert Sommer, with whom he had cut some tracks during the Left Banke days, and Tom Feher, who was actually part of the post-Brown Banke played all the keyboards, and arranged all the voices, but somehow he was not a member of the band. If this seems like an East Coast version of Brian Wilson, well, certainly Brown's aspirations were no less lofty. Montage was signed to Laurie Records in New York, and two singles, credited to "The Montage", were issued during 1968: "I Shall Call Her Mary", a charming paean to erstwhile Shangri-La Mary Weiss, and "Wake Up Jimmy", an unexpectedly-bouncy tune about the end of the world. Neither charted, Laurie perhaps being preoccupied at the time with squeezing more Snoopy songs out of the Royal Guardsmen, but Brown had an elpee's worth of toons to deliver, and he did, in the process recycling two Left Banke-era songs: "Desiree", the fifth Banke single and the last one to scrape into the Top 100, and "Men Are Building Sand", which he had recorded previously with Sommer but which had been left in the vault.
So how good is Montage? The band, assisted by the usual orchestral sweeteners when appropriate, kept up with Brown's intricate melodies with no problem, though the vocalists, led by Bob Steurer, were a couple of notches below the expert harmonizers in the Left Banke, distressingly so in "Men Are Building Sand", which didn't seem to be quite within anyone's range, though they did just fine on the no-less-difficult "She's Alone". Brown himself doesn't talk much about Montage, and when he has in the past, he has dismissed it as an inadequate production job on his part. Still, viewed as a second Left Banke album, it's as least as good as the real second Left Banke album (The Left Banke Too, 1969), and who knows what might have happened had Montage been signed to a label with more vision or if the ever-flighty Michael Brown had stuck with them instead of, like Renee, just walking away?
CD bonus tracks:
Produced by Michael Brown
Posted 30 March 2002
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Copyright © 2002 by Charles G. Hill
Cover art by Michael Goldberg © 1969