Country Life in America, the second full-length album from Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter Charlie Kaplan, isn’t your typical sophomore album, mainly because it takes a chronological step back. The somewhat lighthearted – a more jaded soul may use the word naïve – feel of the songs is partly because these tracks were written about ten years ago. It’s an unusual approach that pays off instantly with songs that hit the listener like a blast of fresh air.
Kaplan also plays bass in the art-pop quartet Office Culture, and his three bandmates are featured heavily here. Patrick Kelly and Winston Cook-Wilson play drums and piano, respectively, on most of the record, and guitarist Ian Wayne plays a bunch of different instruments and is Country Life in America‘s producer. But like all Office Culture offshoots – every band member has made at least one solo album – Kaplan’s sound here is truly his own.
Regarding the album’s somewhat unusual concept, the press release explains: “Ten years ago—during a time when the logistics of making an album seemed impossible—Kaplan began to catalog his acoustic phone demos around themes, feels, and personal associations. Eventually, he created a roadmap for an entire imagined discography. Country Life in America contains the earliest entries into this canon, painting a picture of a young man bursting with ideas, not certain where to channel his energy and not overly worried about it.”
Country Life in America comes three years after the release of his debut album, Sunday, and the sonic differences are almost immediately noticeable. Sunday had a simpler, more electric-guitar-based sound, while this time around, Kaplan infuses jangle pop, folk elements, and a simple yet sophisticated songwriting structure that recalls influences such as the Byrds, the Beatles, and Brian Wilson.
The breezy, mid-tempo opener, “I Got It”, bounces along on a solid guitar/organ arrangement straight from Big Star‘s power-pop template. The light, cheerful follow-up, “I Was Doing Alright”, recalls the Beatles’ early, winning melodies, keeping things light and catchy but not without some intriguing touches: the brief solo section includes a delightful, out-of-nowhere clarinet solo courtesy of Alec Spiegelman and twangy guitar leads from Andrew Daly Frank. Lyrics like “Ask the neighbors / Will I ever finish this song?” speak to Kaplan’s early self-deprecating attitude towards the writing process.
Country Life in America is reminiscent of classic records where nearly every song is a potential single. One of those actual singles, “Talkin’ French”, is an unabashed declaration of love, specifically dedicated to his wife, whose first language was French. “I love to hear you when you’re talkin’ French,” Kaplan sings in the chorus, “I wanna sit down with you on a bench.” The light touch is briefly interrupted by a brief, odd, but moving solo piano passage from Cook-Wilson before the band jump back in. Like the rest of this delightful album, the pop perfection is often punctuated by profound, unusual moments that signify an artist and his group willing to try anything.
Kaplan occasionally steps back from the breezy AM-radio gems with diversions like the moving, elegant “Another Day”, which is primarily steeped in the folky simplicity of acoustic guitar before the band dive in towards the end, almost like a sympathetic shoulder for Kaplan to lean on as he gently pours his heart out. Every move seems genuine; Kaplan’s sincerity shines through and nixes any possible suggestion of pretension. The twangy, leisurely country rock of “Gas Station Bathroom” was inspired by the loss of Kaplan’s father and how it left him to reflect on his life. “Without knowing where to find terra firma,” Kaplan explains in the press notes, “I was unmoored, untethered, and lost, always moving.” The touching lyrics are matched only by the emotional pull of the musicians’ performances. Frank’s sinewy bass lines and sharp guitar licks make him the song’s musical MVP, along with the subtle horns of Spiegelman and Cole Kamen-Green.
Country Life in America closes with the airtight pop of “Rockaway”, a bouncy bass line out in front of the mix. Kaplan brushes off all the bullshit life throws us with an excellent old-fashioned groove that sounds like a recently uncovered Wings B-side. The music’s simple, earthly pleasures are paired with lyrics that acknowledge, to quote the Rolling Stones, “What it drag it is getting old”, but with a playful eloquence that makes it seem that it might not be so bad: “But everybody’s fine / Paying rent on time / Living ‘tween the lines / Just to stop on a dime.” As the song winds down, Kaplan repeats “I love you” a few times, perhaps as an assurance, a bit of a good luck kiss. The sophistication of this gorgeous album is truly impressive, but Country Life in America is also Charlie Kaplan’s reminder that sometimes the simplest, most sincere gestures are the warmest and longest-lasting.