Thrilling checker games? As if a game of checkers could fail to thrill!

The Four Seasons were late to breathe in the psychedelic air blowing through pop music in the late ’60s. They missed the Summer of Love by nearly two years, not releasing their own stab at a counter-cultural concept album until January of 1969. Genuine Imitation Life Gazette, though, is as surprising a turn by a puttering ’60s pop act as can be found. Thrown to the wind along with caution are songwriter Bob Gaudio’s usual radio-friendly, formulaic tunes and parent-approved themes. The Four Seasons, it seems, were itching to say something.

Gaudio, accompanied by songwriting cohort Jake Holmes, took his cue from daily newspapers and crafted a series of socially themed songs, sometimes overt and other times subtle. Hokey it may seem, but the resulting songs were impressively sweeping while retaining the signature Four Seasons charm.

Perhaps noting–as inspiration or as cautionary tale–the Kinks’ failed The Village Green Preservation Society from the preceding autumn, the band cozies up to the world of mom and pop, and in doing so takes a winking piss-take at the forces then splitting a younger generation from its elders. Experimental tracks like “American Crucifixion Resurrection” and “Genuine Imitation Life” amble along keen but undirected, while songs like the shorter, punchier “Mrs. Stately’s Garden” lampoon capably with a pop charm Ray Davies would kill for.

“Idaho” was a single plucked from the album and fated to drown, perhaps predictably, in the shallow end of the charts. It nevertheless remains a terrific example of the attitude Gaudio and his bandmates put forth in the winter of ’69: mocking, but with sympathetic insight; a bone thrown to the old folks, held at arm’s length. Critics of Genuine Imitation Life Gazette point to this track as proof positive that the Four Seasons’ relevance fizzled out long before the hits, but what “Idaho” reveals is actually a fruitful band of musicians growing into themselves and, like their contemporaries, claiming artistic freedom and a bit of self-determination.