Monday, January 2, 2012

The Ace of Cups - It's Bad for You But Buy It! (Big Beat, 2003)


By request.

I first became aware of this all-woman Haight-Ashbury band sometime in high school when I was going through my first of many Jefferson Airplane phases. The Ace of Cups was credited with providing backing vocals on Volunteers, and, partially due to my additional interest in the occult, the Tarot-derived name stayed with me. As a college student in the early 1990s when my tastes in Bay Area psychedelic rock groups became more intense, I began noticing the frequency with which their name appeared on period concert posters as well as wondering why they never got signed to a record label. Then, about ten years later, the good people at Big Beat, in typically thorough fashion, compiled this authoritative Ace of Cups anthology with material that most people never even knew existed. Although it took a little while for me to warm to it, It's Bad for You But Buy It! conclusively shows that this outfit was not just some gimmicky countercultural girl group but instead a deserving member of San Francisco's 1960s rock pantheon.

THE ACE OF CUPS, CIRCA 1968 - CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: DIANE VITALICH,
MARY GANNON, MARY ELLEN SIMPSON, MARLA HUNT, & DENISE KAUFMAN

The Ace of Cups coalesced in similar fashion to many other contemporary Bay Area aggregations and included musicians whose diverse backgrounds all contributed to their recognizably regional but nonetheless unique sound. The concept for this exclusively female group originated with bassist and early Haight-Ashbury scenestress Mary Gannon, whose first recruits were keyboard player Marla Hunt and guitarist Mary Ellen Simpson, both of whom she met through mutual acquaintances. She then encountered percussionist Diane Vitalich practicing drums during a visit to a commune and immediately persuaded her to join in the ranks. Simpson was an associate of Blue Cheer, and it was during a jam at their house on New Years Eve 1967 that she crossed paths with Denise Kaufman, whose curiosity was piqued by the former's involvement with a band comprised entirely of women. Kaufman already possessed an impressive countercultural resume resulting from her "Mary Microgram" days with Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, involvement with proto-Moby Grape band Luminous Marsh Gas, and stint in a hospital psychiatric ward among other things. Although primarily known by other musicians for her blueswailing harmonica work, she soon joined the Ace of Cups and for the most part functioned as a second guitarist while also seeming to provide the missing element that completed the band. Ron Polte, Quicksilver Messenger Service's manager, handled the group's business affairs and often got the ladies to perform as the opening act at gigs headlined by his better-known client. As with Quicksilver, he took a very cautious approach in dealing with record labels and held out for a more musician-friendly contract that, in retrospect, was an unrealistic expectation. The end result was that the Ace of Cups never had the opportunity to do an LP or even a 45.


Nevertheless, many of their live performances were professionally recorded, much to the benefit of those with an interest in all things 1960s Haight-Ashbury. A significant number of tracks on It's Bad for You But Buy It!, therefore, come from appearances at various Bay Area venues, which some people might find preferable given the high regard given to concerts from the era. I'll stand by my opinion presented in the review of Love Is the Song We Sing (which features one of the songs included here) that the Ace of Cups were better in theory than in practice since this CD consists of music that is usually good but seldom great. One can hear many interesting stylistic elements floating around in the songs that unfortunately don't always gel, a problem that perhaps could have been overcome if the band had the opportunity to spend time in a recording studio and refine their approach by working with a sympathetic producer. The booklet notes astutely point out that the group was comprised of musicians who were competent but not virtuosos, so those expecting epic psychedelic guitar improvisations along the lines of John Cipollina or Jorma Kaukonen might be disappointed. The Ace of Cups' true strengths lie with their ragged-but-still-lovely hippie girl vocals (individual or harmony) and non-traditional approach to song structure, which doesn't always work but remains commendable all the same. The a cappella "Music" displays their singing talents right off the bat, while "Boy What'll You Do Then" represents an abrupt turn into garage 45 territory circa 1965 by Kaufman and Berkeley high school band the Answer (but credited to "Denise & Company"). "Glue" neatly displays the outfit's strengths and weaknesses. In spite of the song's agreeable melody, that spoken-word part in the middle is a little awkward, don't you think? "Taste of One" marks a return to vocal prettiness, whereas the tough "Stones" rocks out admirably in a fashion somewhere between the Great Society and early QMS, and the same can be said of "Waller Street Blues" and "Circles." "Looking for My Man" finds the Ace of Cups at their most inspired and balances soul-and-rhythm-and-blues-inspired singing alongside nicely-executed instrumental passages, with "Pretty Boy," a cover of "I Wanna Testify," "Gospel Song," and "Catch You Later" all more or less being in the same vein. An interpretation of Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue" as well the originals "Simplicity" and "Medley: Life in Your Hands/Thelina" (a tribute to the birth of Gannon's daughter) provide evidence that the ladies were capable of stretching out, albeit sometimes more successfully than others. The sparsely-arranged "Hear Every Sound" concludes the CD on a note that unfortunately presages the sound of early-1970s female singer-songwriters, although it does feature the typically superb vocals that were the Ace of Cups' calling card.

DENISE, MARY, & MARY ELLEN JAM

1. Music
2. Boy, What'll You Do Then - Denise & Company
3. Glue
4. Taste of One
5. Stones
6. Looking for My Man
7. Afro Blue
8. Pretty Boy
9. Waller Street Blues
10. I Wanna Testify
11. Gospel Song
12. Circles
13. Catch You Later
14. Simplicity
15. Medley: Life in Your Hands/Thelina
16. Hear Every Sound