By Chris Moore:
RATING: 3.5 / 5 stars
It’s been a long time since anyone recorded an album that so deftly set so many of the motifs characteristic of the Beach Boys’ catalog to such uplifting, beautiful music.
At long last, forty-seven years after he contributed vocals and bass to 1963’s Surfer Girl and twelve years since he split with the Beach Boys, comes Al Jardine’s solo debut.
A Postcard from California is driven by a simple but successful concept: that of traveling through the great state of California. This concept enables Jardine and company to work with the surfing and automotive lexicon and express concern for the environment; in short, to revisit many of the aspects that the best Beach Boys albums mastered at various times throughout their career.
In a recent interview about A Postcard from California, he reflected, “It dawned on me that it might be the unfinished Beach Boys album everyone has been wishing for, and that in my own mind I also had been wishing for. I think it evolved out of desire and feeling incomplete.”
If Jardine was feeling incomplete, then he has certainly, in a musical sense, filled the gaps admirably — notably with A-list guest artists and a 50/50 mix of new Jardine-penned tracks and older songs, both Beach Boys standards and unreleased gems.
To his credit, he has kept the covers to a minimum, placing the most recognizable ones in the latter half of the album so as not to overshadow his other work. (I certainly pursed my lips when I read “Help Me, Rhonda” among the tracks listed, although I have to admit its new arrangement is right at home with the other songs on the album.)
One might question why Jardine isn’t releasing an album entirely composed of original songs after spending the two decades since “Island Girl” without releasing so much as a single or even contributing to a co-written effort. From this perspective — and it’s a fair one — A Postcard from California can only disappoint.
However, fair as that may be, there are several other factors to consider.
Consider, for instance, that Jardine made a name for himself in a band whose members prided themselves in their various in-house songwriting talents (read: no one member needed to write more than a few songs for any given release) — the format that was at its peak in the seventies, and according to Jardine, contributed to the Brian Wilson/Steve Kalinich number “California Feelin'” being passed over.
Consider, moreover, that no Beach Boy other than Brian Wilson has had any success releasing solo albums in the last thirty years. The Beach Boys themselves have struggled to release hit records for nearly as long. Why would any surviving band member, other than the perennially in-demand Brian, be in a rush to record an album?
Consider, finally, that A Postcard from California intentionally harkens back to a simpler time, one that can arguably be recaptured in the sights and sounds of the California landscape. Jardine believes as much — as the Beach Boys always did — so it logically follows that his first solo album would be in the style of, and borrowing tracks from, that tradition.
Is A Postcard from California an unmitigated success on a level with Brian Wilson’s solo albums? Well, no, but that’s hardly to be expected; Brian was always the most musically and harmonically innovative of the group, although Dennis carved out a tremendous set of solo recordings that were anything but derivative of the Beach Boys style.
What Al Jardine has managed to accomplish is notable for its success where others would have fallen short: going back to the formula, declining to fu– …um, mess with it, and end up with a beautifully organic result. Asked about his special guests — guys like Neil Young, Steve Miller, Glen Campbell, and Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell of America — Al says, “People just came to the party.” This may come across as quite impromptu, but the result is a rich sonic landscape populated by numerous recognizable voices blending subtly into the fabric of the music.
Sounds kind of like the recipe for a Beach Boys record, doesn’t it?
Jardine clearly took to this project with the sensibilities of a Beach Boy. He told an interviewer that “having been in the Beach Boys for so many years, I could probably spend another year on vocals and vocal arrangements.” Rather than risk overproducing the harmonies for a perceived audience, he carved his own path.
“Not to overuse a phrase, but less is more,” he continued.
The instrumentation is not overwhelming, and that works to its benefit at almost every turn. This leaves plenty of room for lush harmonies to accompany the lead vocals. New tracks like “San Simeon,” “California Feelin’,” and the title track do, indeed, sound at times like “the unfinished Beach Boys [songs] everyone has been wishing for.” The covers operate on the opposite formula, being arranged and performed to fit on this record rather than to recreate their original sounds. The best example is “Help Me, Rhonda,” about which Jardine says he wanted it “to feel like a blues classic.”
And it’s been forty-five years since it hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, so I suppose you can’t fault a guy for having another go-round with it…
“Don’t Fight the Sea” is clearly the standout track. As Brian Wilson did with “Soul Searchin'” in 2004, Jardine went back to recordings from 1978 to allow Carl Wilson to posthumously participate in this track. Thanks to a temporary cease-fire between former bandmates, “Don’t Fight the Sea” is the first true Beach Boys recording in… well, a long time. Dennis is, sadly, the only notable absence.
“California Feelin'” is another excellent choice on Jardine’s part, a beautiful interpretation of this unreleased gem. Likewise, his return to “A California Saga” is complemented nicely by the old but new track “Lookin’ Down the Coast” whose “historical point of view” (as Jardine describes it) conjures “Saga”‘s fellow Holland alum “The Trader.”
Having covered the sea, history, and the environment of California, A Postcard from California returns to one final thread at the end which ties the album together: driving. “Drivin'” and “Honkin’ Down the Highway” are a nice pair, made nicer by the presence of Brian Wilson and America, the former with a nice crack at gas prices in the fadeout: “BP, you’re killin’ me, man.” They are followed by “And I Always Will,” an album closer that returns to the stripped down arrangement of the second track; it is a straightforward piano-based love song, but one that resonates after the final note has faded.
Jardine hinted, “I’m going to have to [do a follow-up album]. There are too many things unfinished here. They’re in progress.”
I’ll be listening.