Musical grazing is never so dangerous as when one treads the pastures of the sacred cows. You'll never encounter more resistance and grumbling than when you take on the sacrosanct fab four, even lovingly. This is the oracle, the holy pop mother lode from which so much has followed, and the Vinyl Kings are well aware of it. The seven veteran studio musicians take great care up front to make known that this is just a musical thank you, a project of fun, born of love and respect.
Such is the message clearly laid out to Paul, Ringo, John & George (and George Martin too) on the sleeve of the CD: "It is important that you know that The Beatles and the time in which the band existed were, for all of us, the gift of inspiration that drove us to a life of music. In its own way this album is our reconnection to that gift, that spark, that desire and love."
And while many may balk at the way much of the music comprising these 13 "new" songs is borrowed, most will find that A Little Trip is one worth taking. This is a different take on matters than that of Neil Innes and The Rutles, who did a masterful job of re-interpreting the original music in the tongue-in-cheek spirit of intelligent parody. It also differs from the stylistic retro collections of Utopia's Deface The Music or XTC as the Dukes of Stratosphear, or even the Beatles-inspired discs of such groups as The Spongetones.
This is all of that and yet something different, invested with the warmth and spirit of the originals, with great pains taken to getting the details just right. My suggestion is to skip the "homage versus larceny" issue and let the music be your guide. For many Beatle-maniacs, this offers 37-plus minutes of manna from heaven, a respectful reminder of all that was translated through some very talented musicians. While nothing can take the place of the originals, this is (to paraphrase that old stage production of yore) "an incredible simulation".
As with any such undertaking, half the fun is in locating the musical reference points. A Little Trip gives you plenty of that. Five of the seven Vinyl Kings have contributed to the songwriting, which gives this collection a nice variety of different Lennon/McCartney and Harrison styles. Another smart thing is that they've kept the songs short (as many of the originals were); only one song here breaks the four-minute mark. As a result, these songs don't overstay their welcome. They come, entice and leave you wanting more.
Josh Leo's title song appropriately arrives out of screaming audience noise, opening the proceedings with the whimsical tale of a 10-year old who, watching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, finds his calling in rock 'n' roll. Musically there's a little "Got to Get You Into My Life", with some "Penny Lane" horn and bell-ringing and even some "Day in the Life" string progression thrown in for good measure (see how many additional references you can find). In general, you get nicely executed harmonies and a hint of what's yet to come.
With "I Took a Chance" (Photoglo/Leo), you get the real sense of what this project is about. Working off a guitar intro that recalls the Beatle treatment of Buddy Holly & The Crickets' "Words of Love", the song also evokes many other early Beatle classics. This is an effective clone; the middle bridge and lead really capture the whole 1960s love song genre.
Similarly, "Don't Worry 'Bout Me" (Stinson/Lee) comes at the past with more of a Lennon edge, including the fuzzy bass of a "Think For Yourself" (along with plenty of Harrison guitar riffs thrown into the mix). Part of the enjoyment is in hearing how well the sounds are captured and performed -- the other part is in trying to see how many sounds you can identify.
"Here We Go Again" is a ringer for the soft, pretty, melodic McCartney songs of way back when (e.g. "Mother Nature's Son"), complete with tastefully assembled strings. The lyrics are simplistic enough (which one could contend well suits the McCartney side of things), but what really makes these songs work is the music, the guitar sounds, the harmonies, the drumming, the subtle mix and production and particularly, the bass.
Where most Beatle wannabes fall apart is in their failure to meet the challenge of McCartney's bass lines. Thankfully, that is not the case here as Michael Rhodes (one of the non-writers on this project) obtains some great fat bass and manages to do justice to the Macca sound. Rhodes is a veteran of the studio, having played with the likes of Steve Winwood, Vince Gill, Etta James, Peter Frampton, John Fogerty, Shawn Colwin and Bob Segar.
The idea for The Vinyl Kings developed during a 1986 national tour for Jimmy Buffett (talk about unlikely scenarios). Larry Lee and fellow "Coral Reefers" Josh Leo and Vince Melamed became friends and envisioned what finally has been captured on disc these many years later.
Lee is perhaps best known as the former lead singer and songwriter for the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, recording 8 albums with the group from 1975-1982. Since then, he has lent his voice to a number of projects (with the like 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 resume 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).
You might remember Vinyl King Larry Byrom as guitarist with Steppenwolf (he penned "Hey Lawdy Mama", among others). Since then, he has become a top session guitarist in Nashville, while continuing to write songs for country artists like Tanya Tucker and Alison Krauss. Drummer Harry Stinson is another singer/producer/songwriter and has toured with a host of others (Brooks & Dunn, Steve Earle, Peter Frampton, Etta James, etc.).
Jim Photoglo is another career musician/performer/songwriter with many solo albums and impressive credits. He has toured with Andy Gibb, Vince Gill, Nicolette Larson and Dan Fogelberg, but even more impressive is the list of artists who have recorded his songs, some of whom include: Dusty Springfield, James Ingram, Kenny Rogers, The Oak Ridge Boys, Michael McDonald, Travis Tritt, The Everly Brothers, Faith Hill and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. He's also a part of the band Run C&W (with Vince Melamed), whose specialty is to take classic songs of the 1960s and 1970s and re-interpret them in a bluegrass style.
While vocalist/keyboard player Vince Melamed is not listed on the CD, he is very much an active Vinyl King (when the recording was underway, he had just signed a publishing deal with Madonna's Maverick and put all his energies into writing songs that might get covered instead). He too is an accomplished songwriter, having written for artists like Trisha Yearwood, Ty Herndon, Phoebe Snow and Tina Turner.
These talented guys got together and started doing this just for fun in 2001. For some of them, it was a chance to re-discover their love of music and now, over a year later, the finished disc captures that spirit.
"I Think I Know" opens with an upbeat guitar riff that's "And Your Bird Can Sing" transposed, then switches into something else, with lyrics that cover the same ground of "We Can Work It Out" (there's even a smidgeon of Brian Wilson/Beach Boys there too).
We get a bit of the Indian-flavors of "Within You Without You" at the opening of "Leave This Town", which then morphs into something deliberately more Revolver-era. "Mind Over Matter" is definitely latter-era Beatles, concentrating on the John Lennon end of things (with great attention to sound details) and then switching into something that's very ELO-sounding in mid-song before returning to the Lennonish aspect again.
"Mother Dear" is another McCartney take, this one very similar to his solo effort "Junk", with a short pseudo-Russian mid bridge (a la "Girl) and enhanced by an alluring string arrangement. "Bang Bang" is the Vinyl Kings' answer to the fun of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and again, some Beach Boys' sounds manage to creep across the ocean and pay a visit.
Photoglo's "Chocolate Cake" is perhaps the most obvious in imitating the sounds and world of "I Am the Walrus" (with lyrics that are more "Savoy Truffle"). This is no easy feat, but The Vinyl Kings manage it well. The brief "Losing My Mind" is the bastard stepchild of "Come Together" and "Helter Skelter" (if you can imagine that), while "What If It Were You" is less easily identifiable (some "Strawberry Fields Forever" organ perhaps and some "Sun King"-like harmonies and heavy strings a la "Goodnight"). "Dreams" is more like a solo Lennon song as sung by McCartney in a marvelously lush arrangement that recalls any number of other things, but stands well as an original tune.
While I have given some reference points, yours might be entirely different. And therein lies the fun of A Little Trip -- the more you listen, the more you're likely to hear. The songs will seem familiar from the very start (as they should), as will the sounds themselves (some songs are mixed with vocals completely separated from the music channels, true to the early George Martin production values).
As I said, this is the result of much love mixed with careful deliberation. Only very talented musicians would even dare to take on such a project, and thankfully, The Vinyl Kings succeed. While some songs have very specific targets ("Chocolate Cake" as "Walrus"), most of these present a general blend of Beatles' style and sound elements, reassembled for your listening enjoyment.
Is this larceny or heresy? Peace out, people -- and lighten up. A Little Trip is a nostalgia trip worth taking in the spirit of fun, a group of talented musicians bestowing a loving musical thank-you to those who have given us such a marvelous legacy. Put on the headphones and see if you can cite the references -- or simply enjoy the music for the quality endeavor it is.