[17 January 2007]
New York Daily News
Thirty years ago, the crooning vocal group called America struck critics, and serious rock fans, as the folk-rock equivalent of Velveeta—a superprocessed, terminally bland approximation of the real thing.
But yesterday’s Velveeta has a way of turning into today’s foie gras, as witnessed by America’s recent image upgrade. Lately, a whole swath of credible, current rock acts have rushed to the group’s aid and defense.
America’s latest CD, Here & Now, was co-produced by James Iha (once lead guitarist of Smashing Pumpkins) and Adam Schlesinger (reigning czar of Fountains of Wayne). The double set—which features one disc devoted to new material and a second one with live versions of the old hits—also features performances by critics’ darlings Ryan Adams and Ben Kweller, plus material written by certified cool bands like My Morning Jacket, Nada Surf and Maplewood.
“We’ve suddenly gotten a new ear for our music—and a new perspective,” says Dewey Bunnell, who makes up half of the current America duo. “These bands grew up on our music. Their parents were our fans.”
Which may just mean the kids didn’t know any better at the time. After all, we tend to idealize whatever songs we heard first, regardless. But, clearly, there’s some reason these songs had an impact beyond just naive exposure.
“The proof of America’s worth is the fact that their songs are still played,” Schlesinger explains. “A lot of other groups from their generation have disappeared because the songs didn’t hold up.”
While America’s `70s hits may have lacked depth, consequence and originality, songs like “Ventura Highway,” “Sister Golden Hair” and “Horse With No Name” continue to please with their easy harmonies, wind-blown melodies and untainted sincerity.
“That kind of sincerity is hard to pooh-pooh,” Bunnell asserts.
Yet, in its day, that very quality got the group tarred with the tag “middle of the road” wimps, or worse, purveyors of “soft rock.”
“Who would want to be called `soft rock’?” asks Bunnell. “It’s an oxymoron.”
Still, the songwriter does cop to certain aspects of the criticism. “I never deluded myself into thinking we came into this as a big innovative, groundbreaking band,” he says. “We were very clearly followers of our heroes like Crosby, Stills and Nash, and Neil Young.”
Especially Young. America’s 1972 breakthrough song, “Horse With No Name,” so closely mimicked Young’s smash “Heart of Gold” many called it a ripoff. Worse, the song seemed to exploit Young’s reluctance to repeat his success: When the older artist wouldn’t Xerox the commercial sound he launched on his LP “Harvest,” America swooped in to take up the gauntlet—with a slicker sound, and cuter looks to boot.
“I didn’t consciously try to affect (Young’s) vocals,” Bunnell explains. “But subconsciously, I might have.”
Regardless, the song turned the teenaged trio (rounded out by babyfaced Gerry Beckley and Dan Peek) into instant superstars—as well as cutie-pie pinups. Their reign of power lasted through much of the `70s, but by the end of the decade they were struggling to reinvent themselves. “When it came to new wave, we were completely out of step,” Bunnell says.
Peek left the group in 1977 to pursue a career in Christian music, which he maintains to this day. The remaining duo struggled on, and scored a brief comeback hit in 1982 with “You Can Do Magic.” In the years since, they never considered a reunion of the original trio, despite some moneyed lures. “When that fork in the road came, there was no going back,” Bunnell explains.
In 2001, the group received an unexpected infusion of relevance when Janet Jackson sampled the ticklish acoustic guitar hook from “Ventura Highway” for her hit “Someone to Call My Lover.” “It sold more copies than we had in 10 or 15 years,” says Bunnell. “It opened up a little crack in the door.”
The door began to open further a few years ago, when Gerry Beckley was working on one of his periodic solo projects. Beckley knew that Fountains of Wayne’s Schlesinger was a fan, so he began E-mailing him. A collaboration began and as it gained momentum, more modern stars signed on to the project. Eventually, it seemed like a commercial enough venture to bring Bunnell back in and go for a real America comeback. Aided by the younger artists’ endorsement, Columbia Records jumped in to distribute the album via its Burgundy imprint.
Bunnell labels himself the “caboose” of the project, because he previously had no awareness of the younger bands’ talent. “This was a real eye-opener for me,” he says.
Their collaboration works particularly well on the cover of My Morning Jacket’s gorgeous “Golden.” But America’s original songs sound nearly as strong. Bunnell says he doesn’t think the resulting album contains an instant hit. But there’s no denying the disk’s unassuming vibe, or its attention to tunesmanship and harmony—two qualities not frequently heard in the rhythm-driven world of current pop. To Bunnell, that sense to melody explains America’s endurance.
“Music is cyclical,” he says. “It always comes back to the song.”