One of the records that sits atop my anticipated pile for 2021 is Magic Mirror from songwriter Pearl Charles. Her last album tested out several strains of pop, but this new one smelts a potent mix of country, folk and soul with a confidence that’s hard to shake. The record shakes off the excess of the night and wanders up canyon roads into a lush ‘70s sound that’s been long simmering under her works. As the album approaches next month, I though Pearl would be great for a pick in the Hidden Gems series and she certainly didn’t disappoint, with a deep crate-dug ‘70s record that has eluded me up to this point. Check out how the Toni Brown’s solo LP came into Charles’ life and the impact that its made on her.
“The list of obscure artists and records I love is long,” admits Charles, “but when I was asked to write about my favorite hidden gem there was no question in my mind what album I was going to cover. I discovered Toni Brown through Feathered Canyons’ Pastoralia show on Mixcloud. My path to Toni was sort of roundabout, since without knowing it her band’s name had been echoing in my head for years via the New Riders of the Purple Sage song Lonesome LA Cowboy. Toni Brown was one of two female bandleaders in The Joy of Cooking, alongside Terry Garthwaite. Though the San Francisco rock’n’roll and psych scene notably had Janis Joplin and Grace Slick as strong female figures and singers, Toni and Terry not only lead their male backing bands in the Bay Area in the 1960s and 70s, they also were the primary instrumentalists, with Toni on keys and Terry on lead guitar. After digging into The Joy of Cooking, I found a side project called Toni & Terry and a lot of Terry’s solo work, but most importantly to me, I discovered Toni’s sole solo album, Good For You, Too.”
“To me this album is perfect from start to finish, from the opening lick trade-off between the auto-wah’d clavinet and lead guitar that you can’t help but air guitar along to, all the way through to the final orchestral closing notes. One of the things that made the album hit home so personally for me was hearing how many of the elements actually matched my most recent album Magic Mirror — like the use of chorused fretless bass as a lead instrument and an abundance of pedal steel/slide guitar — despite the fact that I hadn’t heard it until after my record was finished!”
“Good For You, Too kicks off with the title track, an upbeat love song that is punctuated with a stop time post-chorus that highlights the album’s inclination for unique and interesting arrangements. It’s followed up by a more somber ballad which introduces the orchestral element that carries through the rest of the record. Despite its slower tempo, ‘I Loved You All The Time’ still captivates you with Toni’s aching vocals and a chorus so catchy you won’t be able to get it out of your head.
“The next song is the first track I ever heard by Toni,” Pearl recalls, “so it has an extra special place in my heart, and is definitely one of the “hits” off the record. ‘Everything Comes In Time’ is a coming of age story about a girl becoming a woman and all the classic trials and tribulations that come with that. Some of which, like getting married and having kids in your very early 20s, have changed in the decades since this record was made and some of which are still the same today, like getting acne and being socially excluded. With verses spanning from ages 3 to 25, Toni talks anxiously about wanting to mature and move ahead in life while her father’s consistent advice is that ‘everything comes in time.’ Eventually though, these same words become a warning and the adulthood she had so longed for turns out not to be what she had planned. The song ends with Toni looking back, ‘thinking of the days she left behind,’ contemplating her failed marriage and struggling to support her children as a newly single mother — that same message now haunting her. Somehow, even with this heavy subject matter, in her inimitable Toni way, she manages to make it a song you can’t help but dance along to.”
“Another standout track for me is ‘Hang On To Your Happy Days,’ a Fleetwood Mac-esque banger that builds in intensity both rhythmically and instrumentally, leading to an epic double-time chorus that would make Stevie Nicks jealous. It’s followed up by what was actually the album’s single when it was released in 1974, ‘Big Trout River.’ A New Orleans-style, horn and piano-driven post-hippie anthem with all the touch points of American life in the late 60s and early 70s (the ripple effects of Vietnam, being tied to your small town family life and business, football, Uncle Sam, etc.). The song is dedicated to moving out of suburbia, escaping the path that up until then had been expected of and pre-determined for you instead getting in touch with a more natural way of life. She’d rather be ‘starving off the fruits of the seasons, than trying to make ends meet in a little tract home in a little tract town tacked on to a dead end street.’ It’s no surprise this was the single, because though this song itself is no walk in the park in terms of content, it’s just as catchy as many of the other even darker songs on the album, but is decidedly more hopeful and was definitely very topical at the time,” notes Charles.
“Next up, ‘Sweet Sympathy’ offers a phased out pedal steel intro, a longing sounding lone fiddle and an “odd”/irregular time signature. The album closes with the gorgeous ‘Warm Winds, Sweet Wine,’ which showcases the seamless interplay between all the elements seen throughout the entire record — pedal steel, chorused guitar, orchestral strings and Toni’s expert vocals and keyboards. Another thing that’s clear throughout the whole album is that Toni called on Terry and her incredible knack for harmonies from their Joy of Cooking days. Terry even guested on background vocals on a few tracks.”
“I could go even further into depth about each and every single song on the record as they all have their unique charms, but at the same time it’s easy to assess the album in it’s entirety as the whole thing is sublimely executed on every level. From the attention to detail on both the mixing and the arrangements, to the mastery of the performances and the detailed pictures that Toni paints with her lyrics, Good For You, Too is without a doubt one of the all-time hidden gems and definitely a blind spot in the pop lexicon, not to mention perhaps my ultimate desert island disc if I had to choose one!”
Personally, I love this feature when it uncovers something I’ve never heard, and that’s definitely the case with Pearl’s pick here. I was woefully unfamiliar with Toni’s solo work and what’s really amazing is hearing this in light of Charles’ own new record. I can’t imagine another case in which I’ve heard the influenced record and gone back to the inspiration and been so struck by how much it seems that Toni Brown’s approach has made an impact on Magic Mirror. While Good For You, Too remains out of print, this is thankfully one of those gems that you can pick up for next to nothing second hand scouring Discogs. I’d recommend that you do while waiting for Pearl’s new record to arrive in January.