When a group of talented Nashville musicians came together as the Vinyl Kings in 2002 to release a superb album/homage of original songs in the style of (and peppered with musical references to) the Beatles, most thought it was likely a one-off deal. A Little Trip was an enjoyable, well-produced, high-quality listen that showed off the talents of all involved—and truly, how do you follow up a Fab Four soundscape?
Since these guys are career musicians, the idea of stopping at one wasn’t even a big consideration. The proof is they’re back with a new release—this time taking on more of our past via songs that serve up further imitation/tribute in the styles of revered musical giants. The overarching premise of Time Machine is that you are using this magical machine to transport back to the 1960s, to a recording studio complex wherein there are a number of huge artists all present, recording at once. In other words, this time around, it’s not just the Beatles, it’s largely Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys (oh, and Marvin Gaye is there too). I’m not sure the concept really is needed, but it’s a pleasant enough fictional construct. The real treats are the songs themselves.
The CD opens with the sound effects (once the dials are set) that take you back in time. “Time Machine” is an upbeat introduction to the concept that mixes several 1960s styles into one and both musically and lyrically gives you a hint of what’s to come: “Sit back and take a break / Set it back to yesterday / Back to how it use to be /Let’s start off in ‘63 / Relax your mind ‘cause here we go / Yeah the time machine’s about to roll.”
“Mr. Greedyman” is a most infectious song in the style of psychedelic-era Beatles (with lead vocals reminiscent of Lennon). This Greedyman is a taker who wants control of it all (and baby, he’s a rich man). This time around, the Vinyl Kings are less interested in providing musical references. Instead, many of these songs are just in the style of those times, and even when they don’t conjure up immediate references/associations, they still come across as catchy, well-constructed pop songs.
The majority of these songs were written by Larry Lee and Josh Leo (often in collaboration with others). Lee is perhaps best known as the former lead singer and songwriter for the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, recording eight albums with the group from 1975-1982. Since then, he has lent his voice to a number of projects (with the likes of Rita Coolidge, Buffett, and the late Hoyt Axton). More recently, Lee’s taken to the production end of things, working with artists like Alabama, Restless Heart, K.T. Oslin, and Juice Newton.
Josh Leo is another former touring guitarist (Buffet, Glenn Frey, Kim Carnes, J.D. Souther) who turned into a successful producer/songwriter with a resumé that spans over 150 recordings with a legion of diverse artists (e.g., Alabama, LeAnn Rimes, Reba McEntire, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Timothy B. Schmitt, Kathy Mattea, Brenda Lee). They wrote “67 (Home)” with special guest/lead vocalist Pat Buchanan. This is a song that references a ton of things/people/events from that long-ago summer of love. It’s a fine jaunt, with additional fun provided through those musical and lyrical references: “Hangin’ at the Fillmore rockin’ every night / Muddy Water’s singin’ under psychedelic lights / The Dead are in the back room / Smokin’ everything in sight / Helter Shelter it all came down / Me and monkey couldn’t be found / Sadie’s in the corner lookin’ for something new / Apple roof top, a little too late / Dylan’s in the basement makin’ pink tapes / Singin’ ‘It’s all over now, baby blue’.”
Drummer/percussionist Harry Stinson collaborates with Lee/Leo on a beautiful ballad called “Your Turn to Shine”, which I suppose could be called McCartney-esque, yet is good enough to stand on its own merits. It’s a sweet song of positive encouragement toward someone leaving home for the world at large, chasing dreams “anywhere your heart may lead”.
Starting at track five, the real focus of this new album gets underway with four songs that become its focal point. In light of the popularity of last year’s long-awaited completion and release of Smile, it seems like the Beach Boys/Brian Wilson influences are to music what black is to high fashion. Everyone’s wearing those influences this year it seems, some more obviously than others.
“Sycamore Bay” is blatant—even mentioning the Beach Boys within its lyrics. This uber-surf song combines a lot of different BB-eras of sounds into one—from Pet Sounds to “Kokomo”. It does a good job of capturing those recognizable sounds, while conveying those simplistic summer directives: “Put on some shorts, I’ll wax up the board / We’ll Pack up the Woody and head to the shore.”
Former Steppenwolf guitarist Larry Byrom collaborates with Leo and Lee on “Pale Blue Dot”, a spot-on Wilson-esque homage that perfectly captures his style in track about viewing things/memories from a great eternity of distance.
The Beach Boys tribute continues with Josh Leo’s “One Love at a Time”. This gorgeous piece of ear candy really trades on extraordinary harmonies (think “In My Room”) as it offers up hope in the face of failed relationships: “Keep looking for blue skies / Keep praying for sunshine / I’ve made up my mind / I’m taking it one love at a time.”
Larry Lee and Harry Stinson offer up one more Wilson/Beach Boys-type track with the sunny “Just Another Day”. This winsome tale of a man literally lost and confused without his love, reminds us again of all the wonderful music Wilson and the Beach Boys have given us.
Guitarist Jim Photoglo gives us a rather different tribute/homage track. His song “Pray for Peace” starts with street sounds that fade into the controlled bass lines of Michael Rhodes. It’s a wonderful protest song in the Motown style of Marvin Gaye. As such, it recalls such classics as “What’s Going On” and “Mercy Mercy Me”.
The album rounds out with the dulcet “Eloise” (featuring a string arrangement that just points up the song’s beauty) and the equally sweet ballad “And Love You”, a tale of a man promising to be a better, more attentive lover. These two songs show that the Vinyl Kings can create pretty music without having to rely on the novelty of imitating the styles of others.
It’s an interesting conundrum. These five musicians (and their many contributing musical guests) do wonderful songs “in the style of others”—imitation is the highest form of flattery. On Time Machine they primarily flatter Wilson and the Beach Boys (much the way they flattered the Beatles with their first release).
When there’s good music, concepts and tributes seem unnecessary. I think the Vinyl Kings have shown that they not only can create in the styles of musical greats, but can also devise decent music of their own. Time Machine is another well-produced collection, largely in the service of paying musical homage to others.
I think it’s time the talented Vinyl Kings stepped out on their own. Here’s hoping their next release features nothing more than straight-ahead, original, well-crafted pop songs—sans tributes or concepts. It’s something even nostalgic fans would crave.