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Taken pictures
The Margo Guryan revival

BY DOUGLAS WOLK

Margo Guryan never wanted to be a pop singer — she just wanted to be a songwriter, and she was a very good one, trained in composition at Boston University. Her " Sunday Morning " was a hit for two different performers (Spanky and Our Gang, and Oliver); Astrud Gilberto, Julie London, Mama Cass, and Harry Belafonte all recorded her songs; and she wrote the lyrics for the rarely heard vocal version of Ornette Coleman’s " Lonely Woman. " But she hit her prime in the late ’60s, and that was no time to write only for other people. " The period kind of coincided with Bob Dylan and the hyphenates — the people who were genuinely singer-songwriters, " Guryan recalls over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. " If you wrote and you could breathe, you got a record deal. It forced terrific performers to write material that was less than fantastic, and it was a death knell to songwriters who did not want to be performers. You had to do both. "

So in 1968 Guryan ended up making an album of her own, an exquisite psychedelic-pastoral record called Take a Picture (Castle/Oglio). It was the same kind of lateral move that other hit songwriters like Carole King (with her band the City) and Isaac Hayes were making. They were natural performers, however; Guryan wasn’t. " I did try it [performing in public] a couple of times, and I found that doing it was actually a lot of fun, but the three weeks before doing it would make me so sick that in the final analysis it wasn’t worth it. " She refused to tour or make television appearances. The album tanked, and that was more or less it for Guryan’s career as a " hyphenate. "

The album was too beautiful to disappear forever, though, and over the years it’s become a cult favorite among the international-pop set. (The Belle and Sebastian spinoff the Gentle Waves owe a lot to Guryan’s sound and style.) Take a Picture has recently been reissued by Franklin Castle/Oglio, and if anything, it’s been enriched by the passing of time. Guryan’s songs are little wonders of formal logic and naked tenderness, with lyrics about preserving moments of happiness or recapturing them; you can tell she was brought up on Bach, fascinated by jazz ( " when I got to Boston, all I wanted to do is play like Horace Silver or Ahmad Jamal or Bill Evans " ), and transformed by the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Everything on the album is understated, from her satiny whisper echo of a voice to the arrangements’ half-caressed keyboards and pulsing woodwinds. Even the extended psychedelic freakout that opens " Love " is as agreeable as kitten fur.

Guryan hasn’t made a new album in 33 years, but her songwriting craft stayed with her. (She notes that NPR often uses a set of variations on " Chopsticks " that she wrote a few years ago as incidental music; these days she makes her living as a music teacher.) The newly released 25 Demos (Franklin Castle/Oglio) was mostly recorded between the late ’60s and late ’70s, though it also includes a newly recorded demo of a very old song, " Goodbye July. " The first half presents stripped-down versions of most of Take a Picture and other songs from that period. Later on, we get an idiosyncratic but totally charming disco experiment, " Hold Me Dancin’, " and a trio of hilariously barbed songs about Watergate — all delivered with the same deadpan sweetness as her earlier work, though she lets her New York accent sneak in a little more than usual. " I’ll never leave you twisting slowly, slowly in the wind, " she croons in " Please Believe Me, " alluding to an infamous phrase from John Ehrlichman; " The Hum " is a riff on Rosemary Woods’s infamous 18-minute tape gap, with the chorus " And the tapes go hmm-mm-mm . . .  "

Guryan has had a few artists record her songs in recent years — last year’s Songs for the Jet Set 2000 compilation (on Jetset) has three versions of Take a Picture songs, and singer/songwriter Linus of Hollywood has been championing her work. But she’s got a couple of other voices in mind as well: " Shirley Manson of Garbage threatened on her Web site to do ‘Love Songs,’ and I’d be very intrigued to see how she would do that. And I’d love to hear Marc Anthony sing one of my songs. I think he’s a terrific performer, and I think that ‘Sun’ has that kind of Spanish flavor. That would certainly make me smile. "

Issue Date: August 9 - 16, 2001