Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus -- and in this world of unlikely longshots, some people do by and large win big lottery jackpots. It's heartwarming to hear about the occasional rags-to-riches tale or even that 10-second human-interest story they throw in as a tag at the end of a half hour of televised bad news.
For those who regularly read music reviews, you know as well as I that talent is no guarantee of success. However, this is that rare tale where the talented wind up both happy and discovered. Mind If We Make Love to You is a joyous record of retro sounds, slick and familiar in good ways, but recombined in a dozen new and original ways.
Flash back to 1982, Los Angeles: Darian Sahanaja and Nick Walusko meet through a mutual friend and start a musical relationship, writing and playing first for others and then, by the start of the next decade, when feeling they could improve on what was being heard on the radio then, for themselves as The Wondermints. Bassist Brian Kassan joined the group (and has since departed to form his own band Chewy Marble and was replaced first by Jim Mills and then Probyn Gregory), as did drummer/vocalist Mike D'Amico.
Their homemade cassette tapes (1992-1994) dug deep into the sounds of decades gone by, most heavily those of the '60s and '70s, and made a notable impression within the underground Los Angeles music scene. However, it took a Japanese label to make a record from these original color-coded cassettes. That incredible debut (released a year later domestically by Big Deal) Wondermints featured the music of Walusko and Sahanaja and while not a big commercial success, it was lauded by many critics as one of the best CDs in many a year.
The songs showed many influences, but particularly that of Brian Wilson. The song "Tracy Hide" remains a beautiful testament to the melodic constructions of Wilson at the height of his creative powers. When Wilson heard it, he was impressed, allegedly stating that "if he had known the Wondermints in 1967, he would have taken Smile out on the road".
The Wondermints also did many covers in their live act (in fact, their second release as dictated by their Japanese label was a collection of all covers), including Beach Boys songs. By 1995, they actually got to play with Brian Wilson and the rest remains history. While contributing songs to soundtracks and compilation recordings (most notably the 1997 Mike Myers' flick Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, the group basically became an active part of Brian Wilson's touring backup band.
They toured nationally with Brian Wilson and Paul Simon, and have made many television appearances with Wilson (most recently at the special command performance for Queen Elizabeth's Golden Jubilee). They are scheduled to appear with Wilson and Paul McCartney at a charity benefit in September.
So it has been a very busy four years since the group's last official release, 1998's Bali. And with the new CD, you still can hear a lot of the Beach Boys' influence (in fact, Brian Wilson even contributes backup vocals to a few tracks ("Ride" and "So Nice"), but there is (as always) so much more. The trio is just as polished as ever, and the new disk really marks the true emergence of Mike D'Amico as an equal songwriter alongside Walusko and Sahanaja.
These songs seem intentionally to overlap, both in specific subject matter as well as in general lyrical and musical sensibilities. The vibe here is happy/trippy, but The Wondermints take care to use their melodic music as a barrier preventing things from getting too sappy.
The new CD leads off with Walusko's "On the Run", a song that invokes that Austin Myers/Mike Flowers retro feeling in spades. This is big flower power prettiness, with lyrics that really are not meant for close inspection ("I'm close to you / just like one is from two / and I'm close to you and you know that it's true / Let us hold the good things on the run /Give us all the good news from the sun").
Next up is the terrifically catchy Sahanaja song that leads in with a very Beach Boys-ish sounding verse into a chorus that really flaunts Darian's vocal prowess. Add strings, the occasional harp glissando and you've got the very recipe for power pop perfection. Lyrically, this effort manages to convey the excitement of dreams of a love about to begin, and the bravado of that fantasy, even though the love itself might not ever happen: "Free as a flower leaning off the edge of the earth / Breathe in the hour, take a chance for all that it's worth / All wound up and ready to go for a spin /All wound up and waiting for love to begin / Wheels are spinning out of control / We're on a Technicolor motor-ride (motor ride, motor . . .) / Weaving in and out of my soul, we're on a magic roller coaster ride / Well I know we'll never get to heaven / Let's go for a drive / I'll take you somewhere".
Another Sahanaja composition "Shine on Me" combines the best of the '60s and the '70s all in one. Picture Classics IV crossbred with mid-'70s classics, add horns, a little wah-wah, and some backing vocals from Evie Sands and you'll be transported back in time. This is fascination with someone who has the power to make a dull world exciting: "I can't believe that things once dim now look bright / But I believe that you're for real / Shine the light, shine on me forever / Show me the colors that I never knew / Show me that it's true / I leave it up to you".
The lovely "Time Has You" by Nick Walusko mixes in some extra Beatles influences with his pastiche of other past sounds (these guys do write some amazing music), in this song of years and natural progressions ("all the time you have now has you").
Perhaps my favorite here is the song that hearkens back to the best of The Wondermints, the piano-based "Another Way" (by Sahanaja). Again, you hear some Beach Boys/Wilson influence here, but translated through the filter of Darian's voice and refined way of making something wholly original and beautiful. You'll be hard-pressed to find a prettier song musically than this. It's a lyrical bit of optimism that assumes love will rescue one from troubles and insanity: "See the sadness envelop her / Why? She doesn't say / Venus locked in the shell of the one who lost her way / And when the dawn is broken into sorrow / And with the consequences that ensue, I'm with you / Nothing to do but follow through when your thoughts are unkind / look within where you will find another way / Feel the love and you will find your way . . . another day, another way".
Mike D'Amico's "Project 11" is a pleasant addition, featuring nice harmonies, percussion accents and the kind of "bah bahs" that recall The Association. Nick Walusko takes those same "bah bahs" and throws in a bit more Latin sort of Sergio Mendes feel with his "Out of Mind". This is typical Wondermints territory, the past and the present co-mingling, complete with a woman's voice interjecting some dialogue ("Hey Baby") that forces the singer to realize he is but a prisoner in her space.
Walusko's "Sweetness" trades on a sort of Eric Burdon & War's "Spill the Wine" vibe, and does it masterfully, exploring a secretive relationship that takes him higher ("I drew a circle / you drew a line / We drew a bad card baby -- two of a kind").
Mike D'Amico really shows his stuff with "If I Were You" -- aural proof that not only the other two gents can write fantastic songs. This one features subtle piano underpinning in the verses, another very Beach Boys-like chorus, and a great guitar lead that follows the middle bridge. With "Something I Knew", D'Amico creates another wonderful song, this one at times a piano-based musical cousin to "Mr. Bojangles" that goes off in other directions with horns and full impressive production.
Breaking up most of the upbeat optimism is the quieter ballad of Sahanaja's "Listen", a song that proclaims boldly "Everywhere I go, I feel as if I'm gone". Again, a beautiful arrangement makes a pleasant song all the more luminous, and the lyrics combine with emotive vocals to convey this personal confusion: "Everywhere I go, I feel a little lonely / Faces that I know, I really don't at all / How in the world do I face my position / How in the world could I make someone listen?"
Working with Brian Wilson has been a very positive influence on The Wondermints, and further evidence is there in the form of the closer "So Nice". This is music that not only serves as a tribute to that influence, but as its equal (sacrilege perhaps, but listen and you'll hear what I mean). This Walusko/Sahanaja collaboration is vintage Beach Boys for a modern age and a whole new generation of youngsters. "So Nice" is so nice, and then some.
These dozen songs are more celebration than innovation, simple pleasures arranged in complex manner that delight the ear. It's the kind sound you're not likely to hear elsewhere these days and as such, becomes fresh and distinct while seeming ever so familiar. The Wondermints are back after four years of backing you-know-who; but this talented trio has learned well from the master, and we the public reap the happy reward.
If you are a fan of the fun sounds of the 1960s, and particularly those of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys, then run and get yourself a copy of Mind If We Make Love to You. This is a happy tale of the obscure but talented cover band becoming the real thing -- and proof positive that such things do occur, even in this big bad world.