CD Review of Here & Now by America

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Here & Now
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Released: 2007
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After suffering through decades of critical abuse for being one of the wimpiest bands of all time – the perfect middle ground between wimp-rock and wimp-folk, if you will – Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell, otherwise known as America, teamed with the production team of Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne) and James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins) for an album featuring guest appearances from Ryan Adams and Ben Kweller, including covers of songs by Nada Surf and My Morning Jacket…and granting the band, after 30+ years, sudden hipster cool.

Revisionist history, ahoy!

If you’re familiar with America only as a nation of infidels and not as a band, allow us to clue you in. They were really huge in the ‘70s, thanks predominantly to their two Number One hits, “A Horse with No Name” and “Sister Golden Hair,” and they managed to maintain a certain degree of momentum into the ‘80s, scoring significant chart action with “You Can Do Magic” and “The Border.” While America continued to release albums into the ‘90s, they weren’t what you’d call commercial blockbusters; their concerts, however, continued to be major draws, and, of course, their greatest-hits collections remained solid sellers.

That’s because, despite the critical consensus, America always had some damned catchy folk-pop tunes – and, as it turns out, they have quite a few fans with some pull in the music industry. Schlesinger and Beckley started a correspondence, which led to Here & Now, America’s first on a major label in over 20 years.

Perhaps the most annoying thing about the critical response to Here & Now is that, truth be told, it’s not so terribly far removed from the band’s last proper studio album, 1998’s Human Nature. Sure, with Schlesinger and Iha at the helm, America finds itself with its best production since George Martin was manning the boards for the band, but the original songs are as good as they’ve always been. There’s precious little reinvention here; it’s just America doing what America does and has always done.

Of the covers, Nada Surf fans will be surprised to find that America makes virtually no changes to the arrangement of “Always Love” yet still pulls off a credible version of the song, thanks to the tightly-layered harmonies in the chorus. Same goes for their take on My Morning Jacket’s “Golden,” which, upon reflection, always sounded like it could’ve been a folk-pop song from the early ‘70s; same with Maplewood’s “Indian Summer,” which, for some reason, is credited as having been co-written with Burrell (it was not.) Meanwhile, Fountains of Wayne fans will have no problem figuring out which song is the Adam Schlesinger song; musically, “Work to Do” sounds so much like FOW that it might as well be Chris Collingwood doing the vocals. The album’s many guest performers are, wisely, left in the background, allowing them to pay tribute to the group rather than overwhelm the subtlety of the material by making their presence unnecessarily prominent.

Perhaps the boldest maneuver on Here & Now comes via an inclusion on its bonus disc, which contains 12 live tracks recorded at XM Studios. After performing five Top 40 hits in a row – “Ventura Highway,” “Don’t Cross the River,” “Daisy Jane,” “I Need You,” and “Tin Man” – America proceeds to break out…“Muskrat Love.” Seriously. It’s a valid selection; the band recorded it and released it as a single several years before the Captain and Tennille made it into one of the most cringe-worthy tracks to escape from the ‘70s. By including it here, however, it’s almost as if Beckley and Bunnell are taunting the folks who are only jumping on the America bandwagon because of the album’s guest stars. It’s as though they’re saying, “Oh, so now we’re cool, huh? Well, this one’s for the folks who were with us for the whole ride…so deal with it!”

Somehow, the idea that Ryan Adams completists everywhere will now have to have a version of “Muskrat Love” in their CD collections makes Here & Now just that much better.

~Will Harris