We know how the system works by now. An artist releases an album, follows it up with a Target-only bonus edition with a couple of extra songs. At ten, 15, or 20 years, the deluxe edition comes out, complete with a boring b-side, a couple of outtakes, and a second disc that’s either a live show or unexciting demos from the original album. We buy each copy because we’re just as ridiculous as the system. Indie-rocker Kevin Morby, though, has a different plan. He’s followed up last year’s Sundowner with a separate release of the four-track demos that led to it. In this case, though, the music warrants release, not only because of its story but also due to the set’s quality.
A few years ago, Morby found himself in a period of transition, having moved from Los Angeles back home to Kansas City. He began recording new music on an old Tascam four-track in the shed in his backyard (which he calls the Little Los Angeles). As the pandemic wore on, Morby turned his recordings into a proper release, one infused with a particular sort of Midwestern feel and an unusual warmth and intimacy. He talked freely about the recording process, which seemed to involve an aesthetic refresh as much as a response to the simple technology. Fans would be duly curious about those original recordings.
It makes sense, then, to gather them for A Night at the Little Los Angeles. The demos (one for each Sundowner song except “Jamie”, with “U.S. Mail” added) are initially compelling as a document of the process. Morby opens the shed door on his composition work, and we can practically feel the ideas develop. Listening to the two records back to back gives insight into the editing or other artistic choices made before the final versions. These demos show the songs in recognizable forms – there are no great shocks here – but fans will find plenty of rewards as they investigate.
That sort of approach suits the 10th Anniversary Deluxe Edition mindset, but it’s not the best way to approach this release. Hearing the demos feels more like an intimate concert, possibly audience-recorded (the lo-fi analog properties abide throughout). “Campfire” makes for an ideal opening, Morby’s lyrics tumbling out as he finds his thoughts, a pause in the middle of the song searching for fulfillment. As the tracks drift by, the sense of isolation builds from the lyrical content and the primarily hushed tones. When Morby turns toward rock for “Wander”, it gains extra force in its context.
Combining the two forms of listening makes the most sense, as the songs remain utterly enjoyable on their own while offering surprises and nuggets of insight. The music still feels warm, even if it suggests the sunset and the pending snow outside. When “Valley” opens up a little, that four-track guitar tone wins some extra excitement, on its own and both in its suggestion of what’s to come. Fans will likely prefer one version of these songs to the other, but Sundowner and A Night at the Little Los Angeles work together to satisfy multiple moods and develop a complete picture of Morby’s work. And we didn’t even have to wait ten years for it.