Al Jardine’s “A Postcard From California” (2010) – The Weekend Review

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.

Al Jardine's "A Postcard from California" (2010)

Al Jardine's "A Postcard from California" (2010)

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.

“You’re So Good To Me” (Beach Boys Cover)

By Jim Fusco:

Hello all, and welcome to your weekend edition of The Laptop Sessions acoustic cover songs music video blog with me, Jim Fusco. After two strong outings from Jeff and Chris, I decided to pull my ace-in-the-hole and do a Beach Boys song.  I always have good luck doing a Beach Boys cover song, as growing up, I would constantly sing these while in the car.  After a while, I think my voice just grew into the Beach Boys tone, so I’m able to bring you fairly accurate cover song videos here on the music blog!

This is an earlier Beach Boys song that doesn’t have way too much emphasis on the background vocals, so it was a nice transition into Laptop Sessions form.  Normally, I like to take more produced songs and turn them into cover song videos, but tonight, I’m taking a lesser-known song and bringing it to the public’s attention again.

I love the way Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys sings this song. It’s like he’s semi-screaming it at some points, but he’s singing about how someone is “so good” to him! I think this might have been an attempt to sound a bit more “macho” on Brian’s part, and if I were in his shoes, I would completely understand.  Of course, I think the “macho” aspect goes away on the falsetto, “And I love it, LOVE it!” line.  That’s okay, though, as it’s my favorite part of the song.  I’ve noticed lately that one of Brian Wilson’s strengths as a songwriter (and there are many) is his ability to write a great bridge.  Those catchy transition periods between the verses and choruses are usually my favorite parts of a song.  I’ve been putting a lot of focus on them in my original songs, as well.  For instance, in “Good Enough” off of my album, “Those Around Us”, I love the way the bridge came out.  It features really cool harmonies and a catchy tune.  Plus, I like the line, “And now my heart is hardened like a heart of gold.”

I hope everyone likes this one, even though it doesn’t have my favorite Mike Love low part in there. Gotta get Chris to stop correcting high school English papers one of these nights and do some more collaborations!  Actually, this cover song video doesn’t feature any of the background vocals.  The “la-la-la” part in the chorus can be considered annoying by some people.  In fact, it took away from my love of the song until just recently.  I guess it grew on me.  But, here I give you a version with no background vocals for the acoustic cover songs music video blog so you can hear just what a great little song “You’re So Good To Me” is!

See you Tuesday with another Session, but stay tuned for Chris and Jeff’s entries over the next two days! Haven’t missed a day in ’08!

Ranking every Beach Boys song/album: The Beach Boys Christmas Album (by Songwriter Jim Fusco)

By Jim Fusco:

BEACH BOYS CHRISTMAS ALBUM:

We Three Kings of Orient Are – 9.5
*Little Saint Nick (single) – 10
Little Saint Nick (album) – 9.5
*Our Father – 5
*Auld Lang Syne (alternate) – 5
Santa’s Beard – 7 (LOVE the chord progression and the combination of Mike’s low part and Brian’s high part on “He wants to meet old Santa Claus”)
Christmas Day – 6
I’ll Be Home for Christmas – 7 (I consider this the standard for this song)
The Man with All the Toys – 7.5 (The same reason why I like this song is the reason why it gets docked some points. It has this “dark” sound to it that kinda doesn’t sound very Christmas-song like. However, I like the darker sound because I love those dark Christmastime nights)
Blue Christmas – 6.5
White Christmas – 6
*Little Saint Nick (alternate) – 6.5
Merry Christmas, Baby – 7
Santa Claus is Coming to Town – 5
Frosty the Snowman – 5
Auld Lang Syne – 4 (They couldn’t have done ONE more take to let Dennis have another chance?)

** This is one of my favorite albums. That doesn’t mean it’s the best by any means, but this always makes me SO happy. I have 200 Christmas songs and know how to play most of them. I love Christmas and everything that goes with it. This album contains songs that make me SO happy every time I listen to them, that it automatically brings back memories. I love Elvis’ first Christmas album because of that, too. Something about that innocence and that late ’50s, early ’60s Christmas time vibe… I’ll never live in that kind of world. I’ll never get to experience that, seeing as I grew up in the ’90s (and still growing, in fact, at 23). I hope to give my future children Christmases like that, and that’s why every note on this album is like gold to me. I listen to it about 50 times a year- more than any other album. I know the songs aren’t perfect and the recording sounds a bit rushed, at best. But, they’re voices are at top-notch form here. Classic. **

Famous Fans of the Laptop Sessions with Jim Fusco

Okay, so they might not be household names, but Jim Fusco’s acoustic cover song music videos have gotten some pretty interesting comments over the years.  Here’s an ever-growing list of notable people that have become fans of Jim’s videos:

Geoffrey Cushing-Murray: This late-70’s Beach Boys lyricist wrote “Goin’ South” with Carl Wilson and even “Love Surrounds Me” with Dennis Wilson, which appeared on “L.A. (Light Album)”.

I enjoyed seeing this very much. It’s gratifying to know this song still has a life. Carl and I were very proud of it and hoped it would find an audience over time. Thanks again and good job. Geoffrey Cushing-Murray

Greg Douglass: He wrote the music to the #26 hit “Jungle Love”, made famous by Steve Miller in the late 70’s.

Wow. I co-wrote this tune, and this is impressive. Works well unplugged! Good work, dude…Wrote the music & played guitar on the track, as well as touring with Steve for a few years. Again, cool job. Always fun to see something I’m involved with re-interpreted.

More to follow!