In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: songs sung by siblings.
Wendy & Bonnie, “By The Sea” (1969)
Who were Wendy and Bonnie Flower? Teenage sisters from the Bay Area, now presumably in their 60s, who recorded a single, remarkable album of originals, produced by jazz vibraphonist Gary McFarland and backed by a crew that included drummer Jim Keltner and guitarist Larry Carlton. The album was called Genesis; it consisted of 30 or so minutes of naïve, lightly psychedelic folk-pop harmony, heavily colored by the jazz leanings of their session band and by the Flower sisters’ own upbringing as the children of jazz musicians. (Cal Tjader, one of the great non-Latinos of Latin jazz, was their godfather.) Genesis was put out by Skye, a label that McFarland co-owned, and which folded shortly thereafter. It contains several lovely songs, the loveliest of which is called “By The Sea.”
Like a lot of those records that only came to seem like treasures after being dug up decades later, Genesis has an aura of mystery around it, some of it dispelled in the years following its 2001 reissue. But it still sounds mysterious, and never more mysterious than on “By The Sea,” which coos the kind of enigmatic imagery unique to songs written by teenagers. To indie ears in the early 2000s, it sounded like a perfect distillation of all the haunting qualities associated with late ’60s music, but with a phrasing that seemed to presage melancholy indie rock. (Stereolab’s Lætitia Sadier would go on to record a poignant cover of the song for The Trip, an album inspired by her own sister’s suicide.) “By The Sea” is vague enough that it could really be about anything, or at least about any relationship that could be seen as bittersweet, which is just about all of them. It’s also a treat to listen to: sad, sparse, and hypnotic, carried on a surface of bowed bass and rolling cymbal, as vibes and electric guitar hang suspended in the sonic mid-air, twinkling like the falling stars of a cartoon.