Although her life was sadly confined to only 31 years, Chicago-born Minnie Riperton’s impact on popular music extends much further. Listen closely to the art-pop of Kate Bush or Alison Goldfrapp, and you’re likely to hear a foundation of psychedelia-tinged, orchestral-soul, one that Riperton constructed on her 1970 debut Come To My Garden. It’s an ambitious album and thankfully, one that succeeds in its ambitions. Unlike many debuts, it’s not at all marred by artistic inexperience. Instead, Minnie sounds entirely confident and the album functions as a delightfully complete statement.
The opening groove of the album is probably one of the most perfect phrases of music ever recorded, an unhurried cycle of just guitar, upright bass and drums. As an introduction to the record, however, its simplicity is deceptive. Soon enough, Minnie begins singing from the perspective of a flower, a full orchestra is introduced and the tone of the record is set. This orchestra sticks around for the album’s remaining nine songs and is always employed tastefully. In retrospect, many LPs from this period invest in an orchestra simply to make their music ‘big’ without much in the way of substance. It reeks of bombast for the sake of bombast. Conversely on Come To My Garden, the arrangements are one of its strongest elements and feel like a natural and necessary extension of the gorgeous core melodies. The album excels in striking a balance between the intimate and the flamboyant.
One of the album’s greatest strengths lies in its structuring. On first listen, hardly any of the songs seem to follow a conventional pop song layout. That’s not to say that the record isn’t rich with stunning choruses, but rather that it tends to take more from classical music in this respect – content to introduce themes and develop them at its own pace. Listening to these songs, it’s no surprise to learn that Riperton had operatic training. From the thundering, timpani-led crescendo on Rainy Day in Centerville to her own famous whistle register soaring over the songs like some sort of spectral theremin, Minnie’s wide appreciation of musical form and genre is clear.
Minnie would go on to do much better commercially on her later albums, working extensively with Stevie Wonder and scoring a hit with 1974’s Lovin’ You, but it’s Come To My Garden that stands above all else in her discography. A lush and vibrant record, it’s truly a special experience to wander through Minnie’s garden.
Marlon Toner-McLachlan is a Daylesford resident and Melbourne music enthusiast who does reviews for the Wombat Post. “I Respect the Hell out of:” is a new feature examining some of his favourite overlooked records of the 20th century. See further reviews over the coming weeks.