Those who like their pop strange and decidedly left-of-center will find much to enjoy on Trill It Like It Was.
There’s really no good way to prepare one’s self for what awaits when the needle drops on Trill It Like It Was. Credited to “The Templeton Twins with Teddy Turner’s Bunsen Burners,” this musical oddity was really the work of former Harpers Bizarre member and prolific ‘70s producer Ted Templeman. Under the guise of twins Terry and Tippy Templeton, Templeman’s multi-tracked vocals take center stage.
Like many performers of the late-‘60s/early-‘70s, he culls much of his source material from the work of others, namely the pop hits of the day. But rather than simply doing straight or mildly reimagined covers, Templeman reinvents 10 pop hits (with one original thrown in for good measure) as long-lost ‘30s-styled novelty records. And while others managed to pull off similar feats (Godfrey Daniel’s Take a Sad Song… and its doo-wop renderings of pop hits comes to mind), none managed to do so as convincingly and period correct as The Templeton Twins.
In sound, feel and performance, Trill It Like It Was comes across as something of a lost artifact caught in an impossible time vortex in which songs like “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Everybody’s Talkin’” in their most well-known versions (Glen Campbell and Harry Nilsson, respectively) are covers of something far older. It’s a strange feat to be able to so particularly capture a specific era through the stylistic juxtaposition of then and now. Yet the sound of pre-WWII popular music was and is still so immediately identifiable as coming from that era that it’s easy to replicate that very particular feel and have it seem as though it were beamed in from that time.
With popular music having time and again doubled back on itself since the rise and fall of the Beatles specifically and the music industry in general, there no longer exists an iconic sound that manages to define an era. Were a contemporary group to place current pop songs into a ‘70s style it would not have the same overall impact these recordings do. And this despite the same approximate time span between the “then” and “now”—40 years, approximately, from when the album was recorded and the sounds being replicated. It’s a cheeky move that plays on the retro/revivalist vibe that began creeping into popular culture in the wake of the ‘60s.
With singers like Tiny Tim having found temporary favor from a larger audience and the New Vaudeville Band’s “Winchester Cathedral” having become a bona fide hit, Templeman’s timing could not have been more perfect. This particular time saw many people longing for the comparatively simpler times before the turbulence that was the preceding decade. In this there was the short-lived vaudevillian revival followed quickly by a full-blown resurgence of 1950s pop culture both on television and radio. It is into this weird world that Trill It Like It Was was born.
Album opener “Light My Fire” is given a more syncopated, major key feel that completely abandons any of the original’s darker pretexts. It’s an odd mix, yet ultimately helps to elevate a song that has been covered by everyone from Jose Feliciano to Julie London to an entirely new and different level; it’s a brilliant pastiche of pre-war pop pap. Opening with muted trumpets engaged in a sort of call-and-response with flutes and strings, the Templeton Twins receive a radio broadcast style lead in. Where the original was meant to instill a certain sort of sexuality and undercurrent of menace, here it’s rendered toothless and posed as something of a jovial offer to, well, light their fire.
From there it just keeps getting weirder. “MacArthur Park,” already maudlin on its own, is given a syrupy, suitably strange arrangement based around a descending, plaintive violin, punchy muted trumpets and a cascading, Liberace-esque piano. The “twins” adopt a period appropriate style of close harmony that is all smooth edges, elegant embellishments and vocal curlicues.
As was de rigueur, Trill It Like It Was contains three Beatles tracks, each of which manages to improve on the original, making them sound fresh and wholly independent of their source material. Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” is given a jaunty reading that, for those who’ve been exposed to countless overly emotive takes on this modern day standard will come as a breath of fresh air. Similarly, both “Something” and “Hey Jude” carry only traces of familiarity in the melody and lyrics. Condensed to under two-and-a-half minutes, each gets to the heart of the songs’ appeal, reverts it to a pre-war/post-Jazz Age take that comes off sounding surprisingly authentic. And while the world certainly doesn’t need any more covers of any of these three songs, this particular trio rises to the top of the heap based almost entirely on the unique and inventive way in which they’ve been reworked into something essentially old/new.
Generally a rhythmically awkward song, Blood, Sweat & Tears’ “Spinning Wheel” is given a surprisingly simplified and highly enjoyable makeover that places it light years ahead of the original. Listening, you can’t help but feel a certain sense of Rundgren-esque sarcasm flowing through the album. But given the aw-shucks approach Templeman takes, it’s hard to let any sort of inherent cynicism ruin what plays as unbridled optimism and wide-eyed cheeriness. Short and sweet with wonderfully unique takes on songs that, to contemporary ears, have been played to death, Trill It Like It Was feels like a breath of fresh air.
Far from a mere novelty record, the album is an impressive reimagining that, by combining the familiar yet disparate with the idea of the ever-widening generation gap, manages to become something both parents and their kids could get in to. That this never came to pass is no one’s fault; it was simply an idea too out of time to really catch hold. Those who like their pop strange and decidedly left-of-center will find much to enjoy on Trill It Like It Was.