Al Jardine: A Postcard From California
This isn’t a Proper Blog Post as such – I know I now owe people two Batman and two Doctor Who posts for next week. However, Manchester University’s computer science website is down, which means I can’t get any of my (due in on Monday) coursework done. So to try to overcome the horrible panic and tension I’m now feeling, I thought I’d pick up Al Jardine’s solo album, A Postcard From California, released a couple of days ago, and thankfully not (as originally stated in the press release) ‘iTunes exclusive’. I thought I’d ‘liveblog’ my first listen.
A bit of background first. For those who don’t know, Al Jardine is ‘the quiet one’ in the Beach Boys. The only one of the five ‘classic’ members not to be a blood relation, he played rhythm guitar and sang harmony vocals, and was the lead vocalist on Help Me, Rhonda, but not on many of the band’s other US hits (he did however sing lead on the UK hits Breakaway (joint lead with Carl Wilson), Then I Kissed Her, Cottonfields and Lady Lynda, the latter of which he also wrote).
Until now, he was the only member of the band not to have released a solo record – a shame, because while he was never the most talented of songwriters, he has a strong voice (he’s far and away the best singer of the surviving Beach Boys) and has an interesting musical sensibility – he is far more influenced by folk and country than the rest of the band (he was the one who suggested the folk songs Sloop John B and Cottonfields be added to the band’s repertoire). However, he’s a slow worker – this album was started not long after he was sacked from the band (after Carl Wilson’s death in 1998 the Beach Boys broke up, and Mike Love licensed the name to tour along with Bruce Johnston and most of their backing band, but without Jardine), and contains songs which he started working on in the late 1970s.
It’s also not very ‘solo’ – it has a huge range of guests including all the surviving other Beach Boys (and the late Carl Wilson, who recorded parts of one song in sessions in the 1980s), Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Steve Miller, David Crosby, Neil Young, and Alec Baldwin. That Jardine managed to get such a bizarre-but-stellar lineup of guest stars is testament to the fundamental niceness of the man (someone I’ve rarely heard a bad word spoken about).
The songs aren’t exactly ‘solo’ either – there are remakes of three old Beach Boys tracks here, Help Me, Rhonda, California Saga (one of Jardine’s few solo songwriting credits), and Honkin’ Down The Highway (a Brian Wilson song with Jardine lead from the underrated Beach Boys Love You album), along with California Feelin’ (a Brian Wilson/Steve Kalinich song originally recorded by the Beach Boys but never released by them, and eventually released as a Brian Wilson solo track a few years back).
Now I’ve said that (and my wife said she likes this bit, where I’m not playing the music…), my thoughts as I listen for the first time:
A Postcard From California
Melodically, the verse is quite similar to Brian Wilson’s unreleased Christmas Time, and quite pleasant, with acoustic guitars. But the chorus is far less good – the melody is *absolutely* stolen from some big 70s AOR hit. I can’t think of which one, because I keep thinking City Of New Orleans, which is similar but not the one he’s stolen from. (My wife says it’s “The Eagles or some shit like that”, and I agree it’s something *LIKE* them, but not actually them).
A duet with Glen Campbell, who used to be in the Beach Boys for six months and played as a session musician on many of their records, Campbell unfortunately shows his age here – when you think of what a great vocalist he used to be, and realise that he and Jardine are about the same age, it’s shocking, because Jardine here sounds half his age.
The verses are pleasant, but the chorus is Jimmy Buffet hell.
I’ve never rated this song very much (more because of Steve Kalinich’s not-very-good lyrics than anything else), but of the three versions I’ve heard of the song, this is by far the best, Jardine sounding like he means the song (unlike Carl Wilson) and staying in tune (unlike Brian Wilson). There’s some lounge-singerism (sounds like a Bruce Johnston production) , but this is actually quite nice.
Looking Down The Coast
This is a song that was originally a much-bootlegged late-70s Beach Boys track. I believe it was co-written with Brian Wilson (I don’t have access to the liner notes, having only bought this as MP3s) who sang co-lead on the original version, who used some musical elements from it in his 1988 song Baby Let Your Hair Grow Long.
The production on this one is nowhere near as good as the Beach Boys version – in general this album sounds like it’s about 20 years old, with far too much 80s guitar and reverb – but the song itself, an epic with many different sections, even though only 3:46 long, is the most musically-interesting thing Jardine ever did, much like his and Love’s California Saga from the Holland album, but tightened up and more thought-through.
Jardine’s vocals so far have been uniformly excellent. It’s a shame he didn’t have a really good producer to work with him.
Don’t Fight The Sea
This will be the draw for many people buying this album, as it’s almost certainly the last-ever Beach Boys track. Originally intended for the same late-1970s album as Looking Down The Coast (a concept album about the environment and California, much like this one has turned out to be), Carl Wilson and Bruce Johnston recorded vocals for it in the 1980s, with Brian Wilson and Mike Love adding vocals more recently (Love apparently recorded his bass vocal part on a minidisc in his hotel room while on tour).
This would have been a highlight of the last two Beach Boys albums, but that says more about those albums than about this – this would have fit all too well on those albums, with its horrible 80s production. But still, hearing Brian, Mike, Carl, Al and Bruce all together, however artificially, will make any Beach Boys fan happy.
This song, incidentally, was a co-write with Terry Jacks, which says it all…
Tide Pool Interlude
This is weird – Jardine has taken the piano part from the unreleased 4/4 version of Mike Love’s song Big Sur and turned it into an instrumental track, over which Alec Baldwin is reciting a poem by Steve Kalinich, about California.
Kalinich is very friendly with a lot of my friends, so I won’t say anything *too* bad about him, but if he learned rhyming and scansion he *would* make a great Hallmark card writer…
This is just a brief introduction to the new song – Crosby, Stills, Jardine and Young singing the chorus over a banjo backing. Actually gorgeous, but only a few seconds and not really a separate track.
A California Saga
This is a remake of Jardine’s California Saga (On My Way To Sunny Cal-I-Fornia) from the Beach Boys’ 1973 album Holland. Featuring Crosby, Stills and Young, and with a joint lead vocal by Young, this is *REALLY GOOD*. It’s a very close remake of the original (down to flying in a sampled Brian Wilson vocal on the first line, which he sang on the original), but out of the context of that album, where it wasn’t an especially standout track, it’s apparent just what a well-written song this is – if Neil Young had tried to write California Girls, this is what he would have come up with.
Even the last verse now works. Originally, this verse sounded like a past-it band trying and failing to be hip, singing about Country Joe and festivals, but now the track is a gathering of old men singing together, and the lyric is put into the past tense, it just sounds warmly nostalgic.
The best track by far of the album so far.
Help Me, Rhonda
Everyone knows this song, but this version (featuring Steve Miller and members of the Steve Miller Band, plus Flea on bass) is quite a fun version of the track, turning the song into a harmonica-led bar-band blues. However, it does show again how badly Jardine’s contemporaries’ voices have aged – so far Neil Young’s the only one whose vocal has stood up in comparison. Jardine was always the clean-living one of the Beach Boys, but listening to this goes to show just how well his voice has aged.
This sounds like it was fun to play, but I didn’t really need another version of this song to be honest (I could put together a full CD of versions of this I’ve got already).
This is the fsecond ‘new’ song on the album (for a definition of ‘new’ which includes ‘playing the intro to Don’t Worry Baby and having that be the intro to your song). A quite pleasant Latin-flavoured track, which features guest vocalists who (by a process of elimination given the list of people on the album) must be two of the band America, it sounds like a 70s soft pop track, and is easily-forgotten, but pleasant enough.
A duet with Brian Wilson, and again featuring the members of America on backing vocals, this is a swing-time track that sounds like an obvious attempt to write tracks like Little Deuce Coupe, but again with a very 80s-sounding production, but some quite interesting bluesy touches in the arrangement. It could have done without the obvious references to America songs in the lyrics though. And the line about BP thrown in at the end must have been a real last-minute change.
Honkin’ Down The Highway
Featuring Brian Wilson on backing vocals, this is quite close to the original arrangement from The Beach Boys Love You (and almost identical to the way the Beach Boys played it live). I’ve always loved that song, and while this is an inferior remake, it’s still fun. Some nice baritone sax honking from Richie Canata, as well.
And I just heard the ending – the line “way with girls”, my favourite part of the melody, suddenly turned into a vast a capella choir and then the song stopping dead. Not sure if I like it or not, but certainly interesting.
And I Always Will
This is an MOR ballad with a tiny bit of a touch of Gershwin and a bit of Jimmy Webb to it, and a relatively restrained (for this kind of thing) orchestral arrangement.
So that’s finished.
Some googling later, I find that the *verse* to A Postcard From California is, of course, a total rip-off from Rhinestone Cowboy (hence, presumably, Glan Campbell’s appearance), even more than it’s like the Brian Wilson track I mentioned (which is obviously equally ‘influenced’ by the same song, now I think about it). I’m still trying to figure out where he got the melody for the chorus though – it’s not City Of New Orleans, Hotel California or Dance The Night Away (by the Mavericks), but it *is* another song of that type.
So after listening to this once, my overall impression?
It’s actually pretty good.
It’s not great, far from it, but I’d put it as an above-average Beach Boys solo album. Nowhere near as good as Smile or That Lucky Old Sun but infinitely preferable to Imagination or Mike or Carl’s solo albums. None of the new songs are especially interesting – and, as you may have gathered, they’re very far from original – but there’s not a single *bad* song on there, and the overall effect is quite pleasant.
It’s a more cohesive album than you might expect given the long recording time and diverse sources as well. It’s essentially a Californian travelogue, a celebration of the beauty of California’s nature, with secondary themes of worry about the environment and enjoying driving around.
It’s an album I’ll probably play half-a-dozen times over the next month, then occasionally stumble over when a track comes on shuffle when I’m playing MP3s and think “Oh yeah, I liked that!”. Which, given the low expectations one goes into when someone of Jardine’s generation records new music, is quite high praise.
If you like CSNY, or late period Willie Nelson, or Jimmy Webb, then it’s probably worth checking this out. It’s nowhere near that good, but it’s that kind of thing. For Beach Boys fans, imagine California Saga stretched to an entire album.
If you just want to check out a couple of tracks, I recommend California Saga and California Feelin’.