At some point during my sixth or seventh go-round of Andrew Sandoval’s What’s It All About?, I realized that when the time came to put it on the shelf and listen to something else, there’d be very little to compel me to ever take it back out. It’s not because of the music, which is a perfectly enjoyable romp through the jubilant pop landscape of the 1960s, nor is it the musicians, who are more than capable of recreating the wistful ambience it seeks. It has more to do with the fact that, however persuasive Andrew is in evoking what he obviously sees as the golden age of music, there’s not an original thought to be found within his album’s 36 minutes.
Sandoval (who goes by his first name on his releases) is only the latest practitioner in a long-emerging trend to view our musical past as a veritable wellspring of material, trying to create an authentic ’60s album in the 21st Century. Of course, artists have been reworking what came before them since time immemorial, but there’s something about Andrew’s efforts that come off as rote, as though he could toss these songs off at will and is leaving so much potential on the table.
We’ve seen this strategy from other bands, in other genres, this year. For example, Franz Ferdinand and Scissor Sisters released two sparkling albums, both bursting at the seams with energy and danceable riffs, though neither contains what you’d call forward-thinking music. How long will it take for the public, so infatuated with these groups now, to sour on this incarnation of disco/pop/punk? Two more albums? Maybe three?
That these bands have been successful at all is a testament to the power of perspective — had this music been released during the time it essentially steals from, everyone would have recognized it as second-rate. But since decades have passed, we can now listen with a sense of irony and/or nostalgia, which is wholly the point — of course this music could never have been released in the ’60s, because it relies entirely on the understanding that it plays as a tribute. Where Andrew ultimately steps wrong, at least in his pursuit of an enduring work, is that he seems content merely to go through the motions without ever making a statement of his own. The best artists are those who are able to develop their own sound out of what seems most familiar; the Arcade Fire’s Funeral, to cite one example, borrows from any number of pop traditions, yet sounds like nothing else in recent memory.
Which is all a roundabout way of suggesting that however delightful and clever What’s It All About? truly is, it’s still strictly an unabashed throwback, restricting its long-term success. To criticize Andrew for being derivative is pointless because picking out where you’ve heard certain musical phrases before is his intent. The plot thickens with the knowledge that Sandoval’s day gig is as an archivist for Rhino Records, the classic rock fan’s dream label. Those Monkees remasters that came out a few years ago? Sandoval wrote the liner notes for them. So clearly he’s steeped in that school of bubblegum pop enthusiasts that see instantly accessible melodies and playfully innocent lyrics as the way music should be. Andrew isn’t aspiring for anything grandiose here, just ear candy you’ll want to hear over and over again. As long as you’re able to meet him on those terms, his album is one worth listening to.
What’s It All About? is arranged in halves, with each side offering an uninterrupted song cycle of like-minded tracks, much like the second side of Abbey Road, though Andrew’s songs are fully-formed. As aforementioned, he largely succeeds in re-enacting the sound and production of the music he gets paid to revisit. Turns out for all his studio wizardry, Andrew’s greatest obstacle is his own timid voice, which threatens to crack at several points and isn’t strong enough to carry the more delicate tracks such as “Or, Maybe Not” and “How It Goes” — he’s more at home when his voice can blend in among the myriad Mellotrons and pianos.
Nobody can doubt Andrew’s ability to write an effective ditty, though, and there are at least three places where his songcraft is downright captivating: Near the end of the first set, he delivers the 1-2 punch of “How Do You Go On?” and “Nevermore”, flawlessly executed songs that show off how well he’s absorbed his influences’ music.
“Round Going Round”, the most irresistible thing on here, begins as a breezy Motown shuffle with a sublime melody, as he sings: “Round going round / In a multicolored haze / Now I can fly round the world / I can see the Milky Way / And a cold December turns to early May / For she promised all her loving for tomorrow today”. But just as the track seems poised to end, it suddenly but gracefully materializes into a lilting waltz — a wonderful transition made even stronger by its position as the album’s centerpiece.
“Another Way of Life” is the final high point. An acoustic ballad underscored by a haunting violin arrangement, it’s the closest Andrew comes here to really branching out and forging his own sound; hopefully, there’ll be more material in this vein on future recordings.
Listening to Andrew is the musical equivalent of cotton candy: it’s great to eat once in a while and tastes sugary-sweet going down, but you shouldn’t eat too much of it, since it’s all mostly fluff.