Friday, February 09, 2007

137. America - Here & Now (2007)

Raise your hand if you've seen Time Life's 30 minute infomercial for their Classic Soft Rock collection, hosted by the guys who were in Air Supply.

I was mesmerized when I saw it one night, mostly because of great songs by the likes of Hall & Oates, Todd Rundgren, Little River Band, England Dan & John Ford Cooley, Player and, of course, America. I started to think about how it has become cool to like what it wasn't cool to like at the time.

Take America's new album, Here & Now, as an example. The record was produced by two guys with plenty of hipster cred: James Iha (he of Smashing Pumpkins fame, with a soft rock solo album to his name) and Adam Schlesinger (he of Fountains Of Wayne fame, a band unafraid to pilfer the '70s). What's odd is how they haven't updated Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell's songwriting or sound at all, and yet the album still sounds so very modern.

What's up with that? Well, believe it or not, soft rock is still alive and thriving today. In fact, it seems a huge majority of popular artists who fall under the "alternative" banner are actually purveyors of soft rock, especially those acts with country leanings. Sheryl Crow, John Mayer? Soft rock. Wilco, James Blunt? Soft rock. Coldplay, Jack Johnson? Soft rock. Dave Matthews Band, Belle & Sebastian? It goes on and on. Sure, these artists may throw in some keyboard or electric guitar or disembodied voices every once in ahwile just to shake things up, but their DNA is comprised purely of strong melodies and emotions-on-the-sleeve.

Thus, America sounds of-the-times in 2007 because so many current bands are using their blueprint. And it's a sturdy one. Here & Now is a strongly gentle, gently strong record. It features more than the requisite amount of pretty, harmony-laden songs, including One Chance, A Walk In The Woods, This Time, and Chasing The Rainbow, a potential gay pride anthem built on a skipping acoustic guitar lick remeniscent of the one in Ventura Highway.

There's also a trio of surprise covers, each featuring the original songwriters as session players. The first is Indian Summer, from a 2004 retro-leaning album by a group called Maplewood. It's a gorgeous tune, which manages to sound exactly like its title feels. Even more surprising is an understated take on My Morning Jacket's beautiful Golden. It seems like it could have been an America song all along. And finally there's Always Love, which originally appeared on Nada Surf's excellent 2005 album The Weight Is A Gift. While it doesn't suit the America sound as well as the other two, it's no less thrilling.

Other surprises:
  • While Adam Schlesinger did pen one song for the album (Work To Do, which could have easily slotted on a Fountains Of Wayne album), Gerry Beckley's Look At Me Now seems more like the ironic smartass sort of thing Schlesinger would write, especially in the line "shining my shirt/ironed my shoes."
  • Bill Mumy (he of Lost In Space fame) co-wrote the dour, thoughtful Love & Leaving!
  • Both Ryan Adams and Ben Kweller serve as session musicians on the stand-out Ride On. The "sha-la-la-la-la" chorus is a big plus.
Let's face it, even with a hipster-assisted, modern-sounding quality record to their name, America is unlikely to become the next big thing on blogs (save this one) and in indie record stores. But perhaps Bunnell and Beckley can take solace in the fact that their legacy is cooler than they ever were or will be.

Grade: B+
Fave Song: This Time

Note:
Though the album's title is appropriately of-the-moment, the CD is packaged as a two disc set, the second featuring a live perfomance of twelve of America's classic hits. Though the disc is pleasant enough, it seems like a record label idea if there ever was one.