Even for the 60s, Harpers Bizarre were one of the strangest bands out there. Even their name is weird. Taking the name of a women's fashion magazine and changing "Bazaar" to "Bizarre"? That's not a play on words, it's just nonsense.
The Secret Life of... is their third album, and comes just a year after they had a minor hit with Simon & Garfunkel's The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy). And if there's one way to describe it, it's schmaltzy. Normally I hate that word, but it's definitely right for a collection of originals and covers that would make Harry Nilsson reach for the sick bucket.
For that reason, it's treated as the bastard runt child of sunshine pop by most, but there's are some rich pickings for fans of occasionally memorable orchestral arrangements. Opener Look To The Rainbow has none of these, preferring overpowering, obnoxious strings, If you can get past that minute of kludge, however, you're treated to a passable rendition of the classic Ballad of New Orleans, and the fantastically brooding When I Was A Cowboy, which should have set the tone of the album.
Instead, we get the lacklustre Sentimental Journey, where I can't quite decide if Harpers Bizarre's or Ringo's 1970 version is worse, and a completely pointless rendition of Las Mananitas. Worse, there are "interludes" (that's skits to you 90s kids) that sound like something Brian Wilson could have farted out on any given day.
Bye, Bye, Bye / Vine Street are both nice songs, but why they're called a Medley is beyond me - they don't even fade into each other. I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise starts off syrupy, but around the minute mark there's a lovely psychedelic guitar section, complete with charmingly nonsense lyrics:
Hey there spaceman
I know there's a happier place where we can
find some space and build us a place there spaceman
There are still time for plenty more lows, none worse than Mad's elevator music, but one charming little nugget does stand out. And it's not the song that gets the most attention, The Drifter, which sounds too much like a "Friends"-era Beach Boys outtake. I Love You Mama is, incredibly, an original composition by ex-Beau Brummels member Ron Elliott and it's excellent, a lovely guitar lick meandering between major and minor as the composer muses about yokel life:
Move along the sleepy river, ship along the reflections of the moon
Take advantage of the evening Lily have, but early wants too soon
It certainly has a touch of the Wings song I Lie Around, a band who were also maligned for their saccharine touch. I would definitely recommend checking out Elliott's 1970 solo album, The Candlestickmaker which contains a lot of folky goodness.
Harpers did tone it down and bounce back the year after, with Witchi Tai To becoming something of a sleeper hit. But for sheer oddness, The Secret Life of... can't be beat.