Breezy attitude and expansive harmonies

In the age of the single download, Jeff Harford rediscovers the album.

There are few more pleasing sounds in pop music than the distinctive voices of Denny Doherty, John Phillips, Michelle Phillips and Cass Elliot dovetailed together in song.

As the Mama's and the Papa's, the quartet was among a clutch of key American acts to wrest back initiative lost to ''British Invasion bands''. Their fresh sound and attention to detail illuminated 1966 debut LP If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears, which carried the band's sole US No 1 hit Monday, Monday and the top-five signature tune California Dreamin'.

This precision was largely driven by the ex-Journeymen singer/guitarist/songwriter John Phillips. His famously pedantic approach to arranging vocal parts would eventually drive Cass to distraction, but in the first flush of youth the group flourished under his hand.

The bell-clear purity of the Mama's and the Papa's harmonies belies the seamier realities of the evolving folk scene. These antecedents of flower power were deeply into speed and LSD, their bond forged over a six-week credit card-funded bender in the Virgin Islands from which they returned only thanks to Michelle's luck in a casino with the last of the cash.

Cass had by this time won John over, his reluctance over her physical appearance eroded by her persistence and powerful voice. All that remained was for the band to determine its direction, and that became clearer when Doherty sat John down with a Beatles LP.

The debut album hit at a time when albums were beginning to make an impact, building a bridge between folk, rock, pop and soul with its breezy attitude and expansive harmonies. Its singles were attention-grabbers but all the material was strong, including innovative readings of I Call Your Name, Spanish Harlem and The ''In'' Crowd.

From here, in-house indiscretions would muddy the waters for the band and such consistency would not be repeated, though a second, self-titled album from the same year is almost as strong.