Aside from the occasional moments when I find myself tuned into the local classic rock station, and songs such as “A Horse With No Name” or “Ventura Highway” come floating out of my stereo’s speakers, America is not a band I would claim to have been familiar with on a day-to-day basis. Until now, that is.
In the two weeks or so since I’ve been able to listen to their new 2CD release Here and Now, the days that I listen to it far outnumber the days I do not. Perhaps my unfamiliarity with the band is due to the twenty-plus years that has passed since they released a new major label studio album. Perhaps. Then again, that hasn’t stopped me from listening to The Beatles – much. More likely is that I’d mentally labeled them as something belonging to the limbo of the classic rock discount rack.
Whether it is because they teamed up with the decidedly current and talented team of Adam Schlesinger (of Fountains of Wayne) and James Iha (of The Smashing Pumpkins) as producers to help them record the 12 new songs featured on Disc 01 of this release, or that they were finally ready and more than capable to lay down another chapter in their Rock N’ Roll storybook — the end result was an album I sincerely believe will do very well upon its January 2007 release.
“James and I are honored to be working with Gerry and Dewey,” Adam Schlesinger explains in the official press release that accompanied my copy of the album. “They write timeless songs and they are phenomenal singers and musicians.”
Mentioning that he and Iha had a blast working with Beckley and Bunnell in the studio, he also adds that the experience was doubly rewarding as they were able to bug them for George Martin stories in between song takes. George Martin, famed producer of The Beatles, produced the bulk of America’s hits.
Did you read that? I consider myself a semi-decent devotee of all things related to The Beatles, and I didn’t know they shared a producer with America until I began to research the band for this review. This is why I joined Blogcritics — to expand my music knowledge.
In addition to Schlesinger and Iha, special guests appearing on Here and Now include: Ryan Adams, who plays on “Ride On”; Ben Kweller, who joins Jim James and Patrick Hallahan (of My Morning Jacket) on a cover of “Golden”; and Ira Elliot and Matthew Caws (of Nada Surf) join the group on their own rendition of Nada Surf’s “Always Love.”
Elliot also appears with Mark Rozzo (of Maplewood) on a new song Rozzo wrote for America called “Indian Summer.” Fountains of Wayne drummer Brian Young lends his skills to a number of tracks including “Chasing the Rainbow” and “One Chance,” both written by Beckley, as well as “Walk in the Woods,” which Bunnell wrote. Other notable guest artists include Rusty Young (of Poco) and Stephen Bishop, best known for his Grammy nominated song “Separate Lives.”
Rather than break down and give you my own pitiful words concerning each of the 12 new tracks that comprise Disc 01 of this release — or the 12 tracks of Disc 02 consisting of a live concert filled with some of their greatest hits — I’m going to allow you to read the artist’s own. Afterwards, of course, I’ll babble for a bit as I am prone to do.
1. Chasing The Rainbow (Gerry Beckley)
Gerry Beckley: Although the song appears light in message, I tried to touch on some deeper things. The song’s about how we’re always looking for something better. I used that analogy about chasin’ the rainbow and how you never quite get there. In constructing the song, I made a conscious effort to build a song in a typical America form. It’s an acoustic song and I used a pretty signature opening guitar lick. So in that sense it was kind of written by design.
2. Indian Summer (Mark Rozzo; additional lyrics by Dewey Bunnell)
Dewey Bunnell: “Indian Summer” is by this young band called Maplewood. It’s a very apropos choice for a cover song in conjunction with our sound because it lends itself very much to our vocal harmonies and the imagery in the lyric is very visual; it kind of has a “Ventura Highway” vibe. It’s always different for me to sing someone else’s song and interpret their lyrics. But this song was similar to one that I’d write. It was very descriptive of an Indian summer. I added two more lines to the third verse, “reflections on the sea,” “fireflies on the lawn.”
3. One Chance (Gerry Beckley)
Gerry Beckley: “One Chance” is a song I wrote quite a few years ago. In submitting an abundance of material to Adam (Schlesinger) and James (Iha), I’m so glad that they managed to dig this out. It shows you that you sometimes need to mine all the little things you have lying around. And it just may be my favorite song on the whole record. It has a pretty straight forward theme which touches on, “do we really only get this one chance in life?” and how important that is in building relationships.
4. Golden (Jim James)
Gerry Beckley: I’ve been a fan of My Morning Jacket for quite a while. “Golden” comes from the group’s It Still Moves album. It’s a beautiful song that we felt we could really do justice to and I hope that’s the case. We were very fortunate to be able to find in them people that were fans of ours. Jim James, who wrote it and the group’s drummer, Patrick Hallahan, came in and played on it.
Dewey Bunnell: “Golden” is an interesting song. It grew on me. This album in general needs a couple of listens because there’s a lot going on. “Golden” feels like an old dust bowl depression-era song. As a writer you write for your own voice. When I sing that song it feels like a different voice of mine that I’m getting to use.
5. Always Love (Matthew Caws)
Gerry Beckley: “Always Love” was written by Matthew Caws, the lead singer and writer in Nada Surf. “Always Love” was quite a big independent hit. To be honest, the only thing in question about this song was we wondered if it had been too big of a hit. It had been used on Laguna Beach and a few other high visibility places on television. But we really loved the song.
This album wasn’t going to be a project where we picked a ton of outside material; we wanted it to really be mostly self penned stuff. But we felt that there was gonna be room for some carefully selected songs. “Always Love” was a very strong song. In Nada Surf’s version it was quite a bit heavy. I thought the song was strong enough on its own that it didn’t have to have the power chords. If we brought it back and substituted some of that with vocal harmonies and acoustic guitars that it would be equally as strong and probably a bit more signature America.
6. Ride On (Dewey Bunnell/Adam Schlesinger)
Dewey Bunnell: “Ride On” is the closest thing to a rocker for me on this album. Ryan Adams plays a real retro guitar on it and Ben Kweller plays a little electric piano ala Ray Manzarek of The Doors. I also do a solo at the end; it’s my only electric solo on the record. “Ride On” is a retro sounding song that has a Sixties psychedelic feel.
Adam added some “sha la la’s” vocal pad things to the pre-chorus that drew it into a little more of a pop vein from it being just a jam song. The theme is about pushing on. (Recites lyrics) “Ride on into the driving rain and if your journey should end in the promised land be sure to speak with a voice loud and true.” It’s a rallying song.
7. Love And Leaving (Gerry Beckley/Bill Mumy)
Gerry Beckley: Bill Mumy is one of our oldest friends and he’s become one of my favorite collaborators. He’s more of a lyricist. In the case of “Love And Leaving” it’s a song that I had that I really liked but was in desperate need of some help in finishing it. Bill came on board and provided priceless help in completing the song. I almost thought “Love And Leaving” would be a good album title because so often a lot of my songs are about one or the other.
8. Look At Me Now (Gerry Beckley)
Gerry Beckley: “Look At Me Now” is somewhat tongue in cheek. It’s a about a guy who has broken up with a girl and he’s really not doing very well at all. But he’s trying to have that conversation with his ex saying, “Hey, look how great I’m doin’. I’m shining my shirt. I’ve ironed my shoes.”
9. This Time (Dewey Bunnell/Gerry Beckley)
Dewey Bunnell: “This Time” is a real interesting song; it’s a little out of the norm for me at least. It’s got kind of a show tune feel. I wrote the lyrics and Gerry wrote the music. The theme of this one lyrically is the traveling salesman once again hitting the road and saying goodbye to his wife and this time he’s gonna make it. You’re not sure what he’s selling but he’s getting on the train to head out and make his fortune for the umpteenth time.
Gerry Beckley: When I’ve been writing with Dewey lately I will build a variety of tracks for him to take back to his house and listen to see what he hears and which songs inspire him. “This Time” came about in that kind of collaboration. He completely created the scenario and it’s almost a movie. As we were recording the song, James (Iha), one of our producers was envisioning the video. The lyric is a wonderful story about, “‘We’re gonna get it right, this time.”
10. Work To Do (Adam Schlesinger)
Gerry Beckley: I had been emailing Adam (Schlesinger) back and forth for about a year and a half, sending songs and getting his comments. That really was the genesis of this whole project. At one point, I said, “Where do you think we take this from here?” Adam said, “I think we ought to cut a couple of things and see how it goes.”
We felt that if I was gonna come to New York to cut a couple of things that we should do one of mine and one of his. We picked “Work To Do” as a very strong example of a good Fountains Of Wayne type of song. It has very strong pop elements and a great lyric. We were trying to make that link with our two bands and “Work To Do” is a good example of that.
11. All I Think About Is You (Gerry Beckley)
Gerry Beckley: “All I Think About Is You” is another song of mine that had been around for years. In a very bizarre twist this song was covered man many years ago when Bill Mumy was producing Wild Man Fischer. A couple of pivotal albums for me were the first McCartney solo album and After The Gold Rush by Neil Young.
There’s something about the home constructed-ness of both of those albums that really made a mark on me for a long time in my songwriting. In “All I Think About Is You” I really wanted to try and capture that. We intentionally kept that song as simple as possible.
12. Walk In The Woods (Dewey Bunnell)
Dewey Bunnell: “Walk In The Woods” is my most personal song on the album. It’s purely inspired by my new life here in the woods in Wisconsin with my wife and my daughter. It’s another of my outdoor-y type songs about walking in the woods. (Recites lyrics) “Would it matter to you if we just took a walk to see where this trail leads to…”
1. Ventura Highway (Dewey Bunnell)
Dewey Bunnell: “Ventura Highway” is my most cohesive song in terms of staying power and that little spark of youthful optimism and the California thing. That was inspired literally by the stretch of Pacific Coast Highway in California—Oxnard and Ventura all the way up to Santa Maria. I wrote this in England reminiscing about California and that sun and surf thing.
2. Don't Cross the River (Dan Peek)
Dewey Bunnell: “Don’t Cross The River” has that country flair. Dan (Peek) was raised in Missouri and that’s traditionally our most country-esque song
3. Daisy Jane (Gerry Beckley)
Gerry Beckley: For many years I kept a second home in East Sussex in the south of England. The song wasn’t about anybody in particular. There was a fantastic song by Nick Drake called “Hazy Jane” and that voice kind of stuck in my mind. So I think I somehow morphed that into “Daisy Jane.” There was no such person as “Daisy Jane” and I had never even been to Memphis. So it was all created in my mind as I sat at this little upright piano in this 400 year-old cottage I lived at in the south of England.
4. I Need You (Gerry Beckley)
Gerry Beckley: “I Need You” was one of the first songs I ever wrote. At the time I sensed it was special. I was listening to a lot of John’s Lennon’s first solo album, Plastic Ono Band, and it was incredibly simple. I remember wanting to write a song with that kind of simplicity to it. I got quite lucky with that one. It was a very successful song for us.
5. Tin Man (Dewey Bunnell)
Dewey Bunnell: “Tin Man” is kind of a hodgepodge of lyrical imagery. Usually when I write a song some single line inspires me. I have always loved The Wizard Of Oz. The basic premise that everyone has a brain or a heart or courage is that line, “Oz never did give nothing to the tin man that he didn’t already have.”
That’s the central theme of the song. There’s a lot of kaleidoscopic imagery in the song. In those days you tried to cram as much into the three minutes as you could and that’s what I was doing with that song.
6. Muskrat Love (Willis Alan Ramsey)
Gerry Beckley: Originally this song was brought to us by our bass player, David Dickey. He was a big fan of the Willis Alan Ramsey album, One, which was a fantastic earthy album produced by Leon Russell. When we heard the song we thought it had some great harmonies and we worked it up as the cover song for Hat Trick album.
It became a single and that caused a bit of a fuss because we were known to be singer/songwriters. To highlight the one song that we hadn’t written was a bit awkward. Years later, Captain & Tennille recorded it. They thought it was our song. They homogenized any of the remaining soul out of it and claimed it for themselves.
7. Woman Tonight (Dan Peek)
Dewey Bunnell: There’s a real offbeat, off kilter type of reggae-esque rhythm in that. The time signature and the rhythm are the real driving forces of that song. We do it live and recreate that rhythmic feel onstage. It stands out as a separate entity by virtue of that rhythm. It’s got its own identity.
8. Only In Your Heart (Gerry Beckley)
Gerry Beckley: “Only In Your Heart” is a pretty straight-forward pop song. A friend of ours back in England was having problems with his girlfriend and I remember listening to him go on about all the problems they were having. I somehow kind of used that as a seed to build this song.
9. Lonely People (Peek/Peek)
Gerry Beckley: “Lonely People” is a great composition by Dan Peek. I heard it said one time that it had the greatest opening line of any song ever, “this is for all the lonely people.” That song was used with footage of the Apollo astronauts jumping around on the surface of the moon. I always keep that image in my mind of these guys walking around on the moon with the song.
10. Sandman (Dewey Bunnell)
Dewey Bunnell: “Sandman” was loosely based lyrically on returning Vietnam vets. “I understand you’ve been running from the man that goes by the name of the sandman” is kind of a reference to quotes from some of the soldiers about how they didn’t want to go to sleep because they didn’t know what was gonna happen. I tried to put myself in that place, at least for that line. It’s morphed into quite an electric song on stage now.
11. Sister Golden Hair (Gerry Beckley)
Gerry Beckley: “Sister Golden Hair” was actually written an album or two before it appeared on Hearts. The song itself is a mixture of different things and experiences I’ve had. The first question that people ask is, “Is it about anybody in particular?” And the answer is no.
My mom always thought, “Oh, he’s written a song about his sister,” which always amazed me. It isn’t about a sibling. Musically, it was a nod to “My Sweet Lord” and the big 12-string guitar opening and the slide guitar. That’s something I was a huge fan of, not only through the Beatles career but as they all branched off and did their own thing.
12. A Horse With No Name (Dewey Bunnell)
Dewey Bunnell: That was our debut single. The song is a fairly straight ahead description of the sights and sounds of the desert. It’s not cryptic. The horse itself is a sort of enigma but that was basically just a vehicle to get into the desert. The rest of the song is my love of various eco-systems, the desert being one.
It has a little bit of an environmental message with the line, “under the cities lies a heart made of ground but the humans will give no love.” That was pretty much the whole gist of it. I wrote it in England in the rain so it was a way to get myself out of the rain a little, “it’s good to be out of the rain.”
See? I’m not sure I could have as gracefully discussed each of these tracks in quite the same way as Beckley and Bunnell so wonderfully do themselves.
What I am able to do, however, is tell you I completely and whole-heartedly have come to love and embrace this CD as I add it into my ever-growing collection. Surprisingly, to me at least, I very rarely play the disc containing America’s greatest hits. While they are amazing songs, I find myself gravitating to the new material.
That is the magic of this album, for me. Hopefully it will be magic many of you get a chance to experience for yourself. From the lovely guitar chords that open “Chasing the Rainbow,” the soft beauty of the vocals on “One Chance,” the rollicking rock-and-rhythm of guitars that make up the melody on “Ride On,” to the closing harmonies of “Walk in the Woods” — ah, it’s all wonderful.
I love every note, every chord, and every vocal on this album. America the Beautiful, you say? America's Here and Now is just as beautiful, I think.