Willow’s sophomore album, Branching Out, released in 1974, is a perfect advertisment for the glory of collecting vinyl. This is simply an album you would almost certainly never hear about, never listen to, and never find if you did not dig in the crates. The reason is that Willow, like so many countless bands from the Sixties through the Eighties (but especially the Seventies) has never had its catalog released in any other musical format. And that is both a crime and a selfish delight.
I first heard of Willow from a blogger named Akashaman who generously shares his latest LP discoveries online in the form of ripped mp3s. I was intrigued by the day-glo cartoonish cover art, as well as by his description of California folky soft rock. I had been a secret AM radio geek since childhood, going back to the days when my father would serenade my sister and I to sleep with the Carpenters, Captain and Tennille and Carole King through our built-in wall mounted Nutone stereo system. (Step #1: My name is Derek, and I am a fan of Bread.) I downloaded the mysterious album and within a week was listening to it on a trip across the Atlantic to a wedding in Scotland.
There was something peaceful, mellow and nostalgic in the gentle but intricate melodies that employed flute, banjo, clarinet and vocal harmonies. Especially in the context of visiting old college friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen in a decade. The track “Mellow Days” became an instant favorite, the perfect bittersweet anthem for ambivalent travelers. But I have to admit, one of the things that made the songs so compelling was their anonymity. Listening to a record in its entirety that one knows nothing about is an interesting, evocative experience. You spend your time simultaneously looking for clues about the band, its origins, its inspiration, and also imagining your own personal vision of what the songs mean. It’s like being handed someone else’s dream with no identifying marks.
I returned determined to find my own copy of this new favorite on vinyl, which Akashaman had wisely labeled a grower. My efforts were partially rewarded two months later when I found Breaking Out at Chad’s Records, my amazing hometown vinyl paradise. As soon as Chad put the platter on the turntable and I heard “Mystery Man,” I recognized that familiar feeling—the hairs standing up on my arms and neck, the rampant joy of finding buried treasure.
Search the internet for Willow, for “Branching Out,” for the artists’ names. I guarantee you will find nothing but a few brief listings by online dealers. Next to nothing is available about the men who wrote, performed and recorded this wonderful music, and that is fine by me. For the record, their names are Barry Fitzgerald, William McSweeney and Kevin Dolan. All three share songwriting credits and take turns on lead vocals. It seems they were a product of the Bay Area, and their sound reflects the alternatingly sunny, hazy and pleasantly melancholic aspects of that region.
A lot of people have an instant aversion to “soft rock.” Most imagine insipid lyrics, watery harmonies and bland musical arrangements. That couldn’t be further from the case with Branching Out which, as its name indicates, is a musical step forward for the trio in lyrics, texture and engineering quality. The album alternates between high tempo Byrds-inspired folk rock on tracks like “No Sweat” and “Taking Life Easy” and intricately arranged string-laced ballads such as “Thinking of You” and “All My Life” that possess a memorably aching, poignant beauty.
The record also flirts with an abstruse, allegorical hippie-Christian element that is never clearly defined or expressed, but lends a deeper mystical quality to songs such as “Mystery Man” (Mystery Man with the light above your head, won’t you save me…) and the awesome psychedelic-tinged rocker “Loaves and Fishes” with its tale of a regular man who realizes he’s not going to be confused with the "man from Galilee." (Ooh yeah, you know it’s been a long, long lonely kind of day, but anyway…)
The album is not perfect by any means, and I’m sure it will inspire its share of detractors. The Calypso-flavored “Rum and Sunshine” and the vaudevillian “Land Army Lady” (replete with swinging clarinet and McCartney-esque overdubs of bombs and air-raid signals) are perhaps my two least favorite tracks. But like the Girl in Longfellow’s famous poem, when it is good, it is very, very good. It's a low-key soft rock album of remarkable finesse, texture and flavor. One that lays you back instead of bumming you out. And always, your head is gazing dreamily up to the sky, fascinated by visions of clouds through upturned branches.
I could wish for the sakes of the gentleman who made Branching Out that it would grow more famous, cultivating the audience it rightly deserves. But for my own selfish sake, I’ll be happy to let the record spin in blissful anonymity for many Mellow Days to come.
On a side note, we paired this record with Tulocay Zinfandel because we truly believed it cast the same spell we felt sitting with winemaker Bill Cadman, sipping his meticulously hand-crafted reds and indulging in his warm, earthy, generous spirit. It was his request, however, (jokingly or not) that we listen to Bach’s "Toccata and Fugue" while drinking his deep, incantatory Zins. So here’s to a great winemaker and an even greater guy.
Bill, we are more than happy to oblige: