Some records are evocative and wistful, conjuring with just the right amounts of longing and loss. One such artifact is Marsha Malamet's 1969 LP Coney Island Winter. A small chill of abandonment runs through this brief and hauntingly expressed affair. Where Summer footfalls and romance would have filled the air, this is a record of intense, short evenings and the intimation that what was once a cause for celebration has become a source of sighs and reflective glances.
The cover -- a sombre shot of the abandoned boardwalk, from whose railings none are gazing, and the shuttered store-fronts where a lone figure is almost lost in the far distance -- has a strange sense of melancholy. Ms. Malamet's world is at times sparse and bare, but reflects on better, more happy occasions. It is a collection of songs waiting for the seasons to change, for people to return, and the fun to begin once more. As she sings on "I Don't Dare":
Once in our springtime
We lived a perfect rhyme
We were here, the world was there
Musically she inhabits the piano-driven domain of Kate Bush, her voice rising and descending with the same impeccable sense of drama and decorum. There are elements also of a less frantic Laura Nyro. Her world is populated by carousel romances, childhood longings, and telephone numbers scribbled down in haste without the name. A few regrets therefore, but of the kind that produce songs of stylish, emotional honesty, the few one dares to mention. This is a diligent record, just the sort of work a young, Brooklyn-born woman, who spent Summer days on Coney Island and could have experienced nothing finer, would produce, as the first cold fingers of disillusionment and reality embraced her heart.
All is touchingly realized by Robert Lissauer, who would later work with Leonard Cohen and Tony Bird. The arrangements by Lee Holdridge are by moments, achingly sparse, then almost classical in their haunting intensity. It is a perfect trio of sensibilities: heady, refined, and moving. Their talents could be viewed as the dark successor to the jangling optimism of the Summer of Love, as the strands of love beads broke. Haight-Ashbury in Summer. Coney Island in Winter.
In "Sorrow Jane," an almost European, noir sense of isolation is set in motion,
Janie walks alone, but she doesn't care.
Janie knows the way, she's going nowhere.
It isn't near, it isn't far.
It's not here, where people are
Everything is delivered with deceptive economy. Like brandy swirling around the surface of a glinting glass, this is a record of sublime and subliminal suggestions. Violins and cellos create a mood of refined reflection as the piano underscores the proceedings with an intense sense of decorum.
"Tomorrow Bound" sounds like the Fifth Dimension in all their Age of Aquarius finery, before it slips into a string quartet coda of exquisite beauty. "Joshua" is a perfect piece of classical restraint with a psychedelic edge. Strangely spooky, it possesses that fairground creepiness, now the domain of Stina Nordenstam and Bjork, in all their kooky eccentricity. "What Makes Marsha Sing" develops a little-girl-locked-in-a-cupboard sensibility, in a curiously West Side Story manner, which also echoes the Bernstein-like classicism of American Gothic by David Ackles.
"We Can Make It Alone" echoes vintage Carole King in collaboration with Laura Nyro, and possesses an optimism in both lyric and tone, which transcends any peace-and-love mawkishness. The wonderfully titled "Psalms Will Come Sunday" sounds like it was lifted from a sophisticated Broadway show:
the trees in the courtyard
how green they have grown.
you sit by a window
and watch them alone
displays perfectly the rare clarity and control inherent in Malamet's singing.
"My Life From Here" is perhaps the most typical pop number on the record. A beautifully drawn ballad, it soars and dips till she signs off with the lines
there's nothing left to taste
but a last few drops of time
as it drifts into another delightful coda of carousel-influenced beauty.
"Coney Island Winter" is a song that does all that the title implies. A music box prettiness of fleeting moments, it drifts in and out like thoughts and memories often do.
but over, all over are the rolling nights;
now my days go straight as dreary lines,
a sad tangent will delight
For now you groove on wheels I do not know,
Different circles amuse the winter's cold
And round wet gloomy tears enfold
Poetry and longing entwine on the Coney Island boardwalk. and so all ends, leaving one with the urge for more cotton candy delights, albeit ones spun with a certain sadness, a poignant absence.
Marsha Malamet wouldn't release another record for almost four decades. Thankfully, she didn't drift into that silence which consumes, or a sorrow evident in her wonderful songs. She wrote them for others, and significant others. Her album became an old calling card of sorts. Those who wrapped their voices around her future efforts were Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Judy Collins, Chaka Khan, and Eternal. She composed the internationally successful "I Am Blessed" and in short has been responsible for shifting over 25 million units, as well as working consistently in musical theatre, and for TV and film.
Finally, there will be a new Marsha Malamet record, You Asked Me to Write You a Love Song. Initially only available in Japan, it has a U.S. release date, and may herald the reappearance of Coney Island Winter. She is already completing another record. A long-time resident of Los Angeles, Malamet has moved far beyond the refined desolate setting of her debut. It remains a rare and evocative work by a strangely mature 21-year-old. A perfect release, and one to equal Randy Newman, Kate Bush, and Laura Nyro at their finest. It makes one wish for the albums she might have made, but that it exists, singular and precise, is pleasure enough.
Eloquent, inspired, and a thing of melancholy beauty; you can enjoy Coney Island Winter in any season, but a wintry edge to the season can only enhance the moments of joy. - Robert Cochrane
Mr. Cochrane is a poet and writer living in Manchester, England. His work has appeared in Mojo, Attitude, and Dazed & Confused. He has published three collections of poems, and Gone Tomorrow, his biography of the rock singer Jobriath, will appear via SAF in 2008.