Are You Ready for This? is par for the mid-’60s pop albums that tried to capitalize on the performer’s recent hit. On the opener, “I Can Make It with You,” producer Calvin Carter adopts Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound style, allowing De Shannon — right off the bat — to make us feel that something is at stake, as her vocals fight against being swallowed up by the bottomless echoes and the orchestration. Not everything that follows has that urgency. But the deftness of the execution is impressive. Her vocal on the title track is easily the equal of the erotic coyness Diana Ross brought off with the Supremes, and she’s very comfortable with the sophistication required by the Burt Bacharach/Hal David numbers.
Much of that sheen is gone on 1968’s Laurel Canyon, a wonderful and very imperfect record that shows what was about to be lost in the singer-songwriter era, and some of what could be gained. The values of the music are the back-to-basics feel that grew up in reaction to both commercial pop and the intricate productions of psychedelia. But if the lyrics occasionally mistake “relevance” as being more profound than traditional pop songcraft (as on the awful “Holly Would” or the bonus track “Children & Flowers” — aren’t those titles enough to warn you?), the music still showcases the virtues of professionalism. She does have Mac Rebbenack (Dr. John) on piano, Russ Titleman on acoustic guitar, and Barry White on backing vocals. Yet the sound is rougher, looser, more expansive, more given over to stray bits of country, R&B, and, most unexpectedly, gospel. And De Shannon, a Kentucky girl who had been in Los Angeles since the early ’60s, is, after Dusty Springfield, as comfortable with those genres as any white soul singer of the era. (The four bonus tracks produced by Bobby Womack give additional testimony.) She lets the rasp into her sweet-brandy voice, and the result makes the slight awkwardness of her phrasing more endearing than ever.
The title refers to the LA area that by 1968 had become the city’s hippie-boho mecca. (With the murder of silent-film star Roman Navarro in his Canyon home and the Manson murders the following year, that hippiedom would never again feel as innocent.) De Shannon sets the tone in the title opener, with lines about hitchhiking and candles, living hand to mouth without keeping track of time, sewing flowers on her blouse. This is the utopian hippie pastoralism of the time. A few years later, as the counterculture imploded, it would form the basis for the domestic insularity in albums as varied as Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, McCartney, and the two best of the bunch, the Beach Boys’ Wild Honey and Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey.
But for every step the album takes toward mindless sunniness, a sense of roots yanks it back to a place of gravity. You could imagine British folkie Sandy Denny singing De Shannon’s “Come and Stay with Me” (which had been a hit for Marianne Faithfull). And De Shannon’s cover of “The Weight,” even in this abbreviated version, gets everything that’s oblique, absurd, funny, and threatening about that song. The singer’s futile quest for shelter suggests that the storm the Stones would sing about the next year in “Gimme Shelter” had already touched down in a place thought to provide refuge. White’s part in the splintered harmonies of the chorus offer a rough urgency.